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LEAF: Transdisciplinary Visual Arts, Science & Technology Renewal Post-New Media Assimilation Review

Leonardo Education and Art Forum

Transdisciplinary Visual Arts, Science & Technology Renewal Post-New Media Assimilation workshop

Reviewed by Suzette Worden

Introduction

At the ISEA 2011 conference, Istanbul (17 September), and the Rewire fourth International conference on the history of Media Art, Science and Technology, Liverpool (27 September), delegates were provided with two linked opportunities to take a close look at current practice in art education and to consider the relevance of a transdisciplinary approach to post media art assimilation. Both conferences focussed on new media theory and practice, with the Rewire conference providing a tighter focus on the histories of digital arts.

This short review is an account of the two sessions, (both titled: “Transdisciplinary Visual Arts, Science & Technology Renewal Post-New Media Assimilation Workshop”) [1] and provides an overview of the presentations, the issues raised and the questions arising that, if taken on board in future meetings, will take the discussion further. The agenda for these two sessions was similar with an overlap of speakers and some members of the audience. Everyone had the opportunity to participate in discussion sessions after the agenda was introduced through short presentations.

Context

The two sessions contributed to an ongoing discussion for LEAF (Leonardo Education and Art Forum)[2]. Nina Czeglady, past Chair of LEAF, described how these events were part of Leonardo’s agenda to ensure that there were genuine international perspectives for art education. Over 15 workshops have already been organised at conferences and festivals to ensure ongoing discussion of art education. The results, after further consultation, have been published on the Leonardo website. The Report on Curricula, Research and Institutions Meetings at ISEA, ARD and Re:Live 2009, compiled by Ian Clothier, noted:

“The meeting on research identified the need for clarity and structure around the terms trans- and inter- and how these are applied to disciplinarity. This would facilitate both fruitful discussion of research issues, and wider discussion, as the terms are often used interchangeably without rigor.”[3]

The meetings described here have followed up on this recommendation.

One challenge for the sessions was to contribute to ongoing discussion on the re-visioning of the art school by seeking to create a model of transdisciplinarity that meets the needs of those providing an education for practitioners and theorists engaged in art at the intersection between media, science and technology. The event started with a discussion of boundaries, with Paul Thomas asking questions about the permeability of the disciplinary contexts within which we currently operate, and if there are satisfactory social and intellectual spaces for fostering innovation and creativity. These issues were relevant to the conference agendas where participants were presenting on work that crossed boundaries between art, science and technology.

The structure of both events included presentations on three themes – collaborations, studio and theory, with two presentations for each theme. Those attending then joined a group discussing one of the themes in detail. The convenor for each theme reported back to a final discussion session.

Contributors included Petra Gemeinboeck (ISEA and Rewire), Andres Burbano (ISEA) and Mike Phillips (Rewire) for the collaborations theme; Ross Harley (ISEA and Rewire), Ionat Zurr (ISEA) and Peter Ride (Rewire) for studio practice; and for theory, Wendy Coones (ISEA and Rewire) with a paper by Edward Colless presented by Darren Tofts (ISEA) who additionally contributed a paper at the Rewire session.

Collaborations

Petra Gemeinboeck (ISEA and Rewire) discussed both her own practice, where she experiments with transgressing borders, through a virtual exploration and representation of distressed walls (‘Zwischenräume: in-between spaces’). Already crossing the boundaries between the virtual, the architectural and machine agency, Petra transposed these preoccupations into a discussion of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ knowledge and of the ways and means of crossing boundaries for collaboration. Addressing a research as well as teaching agenda Petra identified the need to also have multiple outcomes resulting from collaborations so that not only the aim of breaking down barriers was achieved, but the resulting research outcome could be recognised as relevant for a research assessment context.

This brought into question how transdisciplinary thinking was being recognised within educational institutions, especially within research evaluation. Is it even possible to practice transdisciplinary research within established disciplines, while it is breaking down the boundaries and questioning the dominant approach? Connected to this we have to ask questions about who our peers are for reviewing and dissemination, especially if there are contributors and audiences coming from different communities of practice.

Often experimental art practice is a boundary object, or event, so raises questions about the emergence of knowledge in between disciplines and beyond the accepted disciplinary context. Experimental art practice has to create the language to make this visible.

Andres Burbano (ISEA) provided an overview of the contribution of Basarab Nicolescu, noting that Nicolescu was not antagonistic to disciplinary research. Nicolescu was interested in developing a transdisciplinarity that relied on the dynamics engendered by the simultaneous action of several levels of reality.[4] This approach embraced complexity and included the concept of the ‘hidden third’. This states that when looking at a problem, there was, between the object and the subject, another element that must be investigated and freshly discovered. This means that a transdisciplinary approach relies on not having preconceived solutions and being open to suggestions from the problem itself. As noted by Andres, it is “a common question lying in an unknown space which transforms the interaction into transdisciplinarity.” This was supported by a description of Media Arts and Technology at UC Santa Barbara.[5] This is a graduate programme that fuses emergent media, computer science, engineering, and electronic music and digital art research, practice, production, and theory that was created by faculty in both the College of Engineering and the College of Letters and Science.

Collaboration is therefore central for the operation of a transdisciplinary approach. We can also learn from those who have already presented a theoretical perspective, such as Basarab Nicolescu. For education, this can also mean creating courses that deliberately draw on existing disciplines. It can also mean a problem-based focus for creative work.

Mike Phillips outlined how his own work at iDat (University of Plymouth) has been moved from a computing department to art and design as a result of institutional re-structuring. At one level this means there are implications for collaboration. He then expanded this point to show that there is a more significant debate about the value and meaning of ‘data’ in the sciences as well as the arts. This may be an intra-disciplinary issue but it may offer opportunities for collaboration where concepts have to be re-thought from the ground up, and there can be an imaginative dialogue around concepts. For example, currently the tools metaphor in computing “solidifies metaphors into objects,” which has the effect of preventing us understanding the ongoing processes. If we can join forces with others to understand data, the potential for new perspectives is immense. In this context we would have to deal with greater abstraction but a dialogue around the tools, such as in a Dome for data projection, could offer a way forward for collaboration.

Collaboration, in this context involves leaving the familiar disciplinary environment and a need to re-think strategies of working and finding new contexts that are grounded in the digital. Digital media practice therefore offers the spaces for new ways of working.

Studio practice

Ross Harley discussed a Porosity Studio project at the College of Fine Arts (COFA), University of New South Wales (UNSW).[6] In September 2009 over 60 students took part in an intensive studio project over two weeks that was part of a 12 week online course led by Ian McArthur as part of the Collabor8 project. The project brought together students from COFA (Sydney) and Donghua University (Shanghai). They came from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds, which highlighted issues of communication and language.

There were immediate practical problems to solve but the project also demonstrated the importance of scale, choosing topics relevant to different cultures, incorporating research-led work and finding neutral areas for effective collaboration and interchange of ideas.

Ionat Zurr described recent work at Symbiotica at the University of Western Australia. With its “hands on” approach to bio-arts there was an emphasis on learning from the tools. Ethical issues and related philosophical concerns provided starting points for problem orientated learning processes. Students enrolled in the Master of Biological-Arts[7] have to take units from either a science or art discipline in year one, depending on their background, before concentrating on a creative project in year two.

Speaking at Rewire, Peter Ride, from the University of Westminster was concerned with how meaning is constructed in practice. To explain this Peter used the example of teaching curatorial practice from the understanding of real situations. Central to his argument is the concept of ‘cognitive transference’ which has become increasingly important, and championed by Graeme Sullivan, in fine arts practice-as-research. Peter highlighted the difference between product and process and suggested that curatorial practice has become increasingly inter-disciplinary and one way to understand the practice is to use the model, taken from visual culture studies of the ‘visual event.’ This enriches the interdisciplinary potential of curatorial practice by being able to engage with how meaning is communicated to, and understood by, audiences. Art Galleries and museums need to improve their evaluation, which in turn has to include an understanding of the experience of the artist.

This commentary on curatorial practice provided a basis for a discussion of interdisciplinary models but beyond this, questions of value, having a discourse with an analytical view of product and process, and at the same time meeting the needs of funding opportunities were added to the discussion of transdisciplinary practice. Peter suggested ‘transcognition’ where ideas about language, medium and context merged around a central space. This central space representing curatorial practice

Theory

Wendy Coones emphasised the problem-driven aspect of transdisciplinary practice and asked the audience to make sure they were aware of current uses of the vocabulary in discussions of transdisciplinary in research contexts where it was well publicised and documented. For her, one of the most important aspects of transdisciplinary theory was its statement suggesting that the future was undefined; we have a “future we don’t know.” For this, the main task is to bring disciplines together to take on societal problems, so cooperation becomes essential. Research has to engage with society at large and work to understand complexity.

Wendy’s described a “Three sisters” story. This was about a rotation of three crops (corn, squash and beans – and sometimes a fourth pea plant), an example of sustainable agricultural production rather than monoculture. These plants could be considered as “good neighbours”; with combined resources as they interact and make a more sustainable future. Through this example Wendy emphasised the importance of interconnectedness and ‘polycultural’ spaces. The educational challenges are: (1) Curriculum flexibility, finding real world problems, driven by questions and (2) the integration of theory. The Media Art Histories conferences and ongoing formation of media art archives were a means of building the critical mass for the interchange of ideas and international collaboration.[8]

Edward Colless contributed a paper to ISEA which was introduced and read by Darren Tofts. The paper concentrated on aesthetics and questioned the difference between inter- and trans- disciplinarity.[9] He made a contrast between the pure disciplinary view of the proper work of philosophers who are concerned with “theories of value”, and the practitioners’ role to make beautiful artefacts. When considering the development of higher degrees in art education, where the artist has to engage with philosophy (or another discipline), a contradiction can be noted whereby the resulting thesis “is and is not in a disciplinary field” and can then be considered interdisciplinary research. This kind of work relies on institutional negotiation, formulates policy, and is relational and measured by its critical engagement with audience. Suggesting another way forward Edward defined the “trans” as disagreement, next as “transit” and then explored the meaning of discipline as related to the disciple as apprentice listening to unproductive ‘dead’ voices. Grounding the discussion in education, he went on to suggest transdisciplinary be a term that suggests drift, collision and collusion without consensus.

This presentation examined the value of process and celebrated a possible lack of closure. Darren Tofts extended the presentation at Rewire to see transdisciplinary practice as temporary and a process that makes risk-taking possible and desirable: as a collaboration from different perspectives that moves between discipline and undiscipline and is indisciplined.[10] That is, a “crossing of thresholds” to heighten difference.

These contributions to the discussion of theory raised questions about the ways in which arts practice can be about exploration; it suggests that practitioners should rely on open-ended methodologies.

Significance – for art education (discussions and plenary reporting)

The discussions at both events ranged across education, research and the role of institutions rather than concentrate on definitions of transdisciplinary practice. There was limited import of ideas about transdisciplinarity from other disciplines, where researchers and commentators have published on the subject. A stronger concentration on pedagogical theory and research methods might have been expected, although these themes did come to the fore in the case studies.

Those choosing to discuss collaboration at the Rewire session cited historical and current examples of collaboration, such as the Nine Evenings events at E-A-T (New York 1966), Wellcome projects, and the Creativity and Cognition events at Loughborough (1998-2003). These kinds of events brought artists and scientists together. These examples showed that there were many different models and one of the most important qualities was a concentration on experimentation and process rather than outcomes focussed projects. With few ways of measuring and justifying the value of collaboration for research funding it might become more difficult to get support for these kinds of projects. PhD students who were working with different groups had opportunities to explore the potential of a transdisciplinary approach.

Collaboration was considered a means of transforming a discipline. Examples of this happening to other disciplines included HCI as a transformation of computer science.

Discussion of the practicalities of practice generated valuable suggestions. For example, for studio practice it was noted that it is important to have hubs for practice, like Symbiotica (a case study at the ISEA discussion), and to grow a culture of sharing. These hubs should have 24/7 access and a high level of technological support. They should also be independent of a particular faculty and offer value to the sciences, and be recognised and supported at a high level in institutions. The kind of support they have should not only be tied to publication research metrics or patents production that are the conventional measurements of innovation and creative economies, but should include assessment of impact factors that foster innovative working processes, effective communication and outreach. Such hubs are valuable spaces for artists in residence.

At the ISEA session the discussion of theory included a consideration of models already mapped out. This approach was questioned by those who saw it as a model that was against specialisation. Taking this discussion further, those attending asked what particular skills were needed in the transdisciplinary ‘domain’. It was agreed that situated knowledge was important and a relationship to social policy was also a defining factor. The ‘Lab’, as integral to research culture, was seen as an important organising structure for bridging the gaps across professional competencies. This links to ideas also expressed in relation to studio practice. Theory was considered integral to teaching as well as research and therefore an essential ingredient of studio teaching and learning. So would a transdisciplinary theory be more cultural and social in orientation?

As a cautionary comment it was asked: if ‘disciplines’ were not constant, could transdisciplinary practice become recognised, through its emergent methodology, as another ‘discipline’ and named accordingly?

The next steps: themes developed further questions.

The three themes selected for the events were excellent starting points. Both sessions were stimulating contributions to the discourse surrounding new media education. Collaboration across multiple levels and how to deal with complexity continued to be seen as crucial issues for new media education.

The situated context driven aspects of transdisciplinary activities was seen as more contentious, with disagreement about whether or not new media art should be problem-driven or if there should be more emphasis on process rather than product. This discussion became more nuanced when the discussion considered the value of creativity and artistic practice as a perturbation; of not only suggesting new ways of doing new things but of helping others to be innovative too. In this context the starting point may be formulated as a problem. This means starting from the creative project, asking “How do I?” This then becomes an emergent process rather than a hypothesis or question. This distinguishes the position from which art practice has to create its own particular language for transdisciplinary practice.

Further events could ask about the urgency of change. What is driving the need for new forms of knowledge? What structures and relationships are needed to support the positive factors noted in the discussion? How can we develop the following?

For collaboration:

Boundary projects are desirable: collaboration was the outcome in order to figure out the questions
Cross-cultural practice.
For studio practice:

A space to be owned by no one, used by everybody: a shared space
Not having a defined outcome, open to serendipity
Not tied to outcomes.
For theory:

Theory to open up the agenda
Relating practice to research is a challenge for theoretical models
Joining research with a social situation: situated, so not timeless.
Our responses to these topics will ensure that students exploring relationships between art and science will continue to develop relevant responses to the 21st century knowledge society. The openness requested in the above list keeps art education and post media art open to the unknown, available to non-academics and able to take on the transdisciplinary agenda of the “hidden third” and a multi-dimensional reality, where the debate is driven by understanding that transdisciplinarity is: “at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all disciplines.[11]

Suzette Worden

December 2011

[1] Programme details for ISEA: http://isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu/workshop/leonardo-education-and-art-foru...

Programme details for Rewire: http://www.mediaarthistory.org/?page_id=302

These details include biographical details on the speakers.

[2] http://www.leonardo.info/isast/LEAF.html

[3] http://blogs.unsw.edu.au/tiic/leaf/leaf-archive/leaf-report-on-curricula...

[4] http://basarab.nicolescu.perso.sfr.fr/ciret/english/charten.htm

[5] http://www.mat.ucsb.edu

[6] http://porosity.c8.omnium.net.au/outline/

[7] http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/courses/mbiolarts

[8] http://www.mediaarthistory.org/

[9] http://blogs.unsw.edu.au/tiic/leaf/leafisea/edward-colless-transdiscipli...

[10] http://blogs.unsw.edu.au/tiic/leaf/leafrewire/darren-tofts-being-indisci...

[11] Nicolescu, B. (2002). Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity: SUNY Press, p.44.