Arts-based research

uwasThere’s a great initiative in Aalto University, called UWAS, or University-Wide Arts Studies. The aim of UWAS is to “offer access to arts-based thinking” to all students at Aalto. UWAS is organising a two-day seminar called U-Create, and I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on “arts-based research”. The panel takes place at 10:45–12:00 on Wednesday 2nd November, and you can watch the livestream or the recording here.

We were sent some initial questions for the panel (which , when I’m writing this, is tomorrow). So, spoiler alert, here’s what I’ll answer!

Well, these are more topics for discussion rather than questions, so I’m not really spoiling anything. The first theme is the relationship between art and research. More concretely perhaps, how are the two combined in a project?

My thinking about this has changed in the last two or so years, and I’m now more and more confident that for me, there is no research without art. Art turns out to be in a constitutive role in what I’m trying to study. Does the term “constitutive” ring a bell? Yes, it’s from a paper in TICS by Hanne de Jaegher, Ezequiel di Paolo and Shaun Gallagher, and they argue that social interaction should be seen to have a constitutive role in social cognition, rather than just a contextual or an enabling one. They think, and I agree, that social interaction can not be explained as a sum of two individual cognitive mechanisms, that happen to operate in a context of social interaction, but the embodied and participatory aspects of cognition should be embraced, and an enactive approach, with social interaction as the thing that minds do, adopted.

So social interaction is not just a context for the minds to operate in, it’s not something that enables them to do stuff, it IS what the minds are, what they do, the essence of them. And to study this interaction, to understand how it works, how it goes wrong, how to fix it, how to influence it—we need art in our science.

A year ago, art told me* that even though studying entrainment and how people stay synchronised is cool, just staying synchronised is extremely boring. The real question is how we manage sync together, get in and out of sync. This sounds really obvious and simple, but it is a rather fundamental switch of perspective that has a major effect on what kinds of experiments or measurements I am planning now.

And similarly, pretty much whatever is central, important, and interesting in social interaction, is foregrounded or highlighted in performing arts. Emotional contagion, kinaesthetic empathy, entrainment, identity formation, group dynamics… All of these are important for understanding how people can do joint actions, how we read each others’ minds. And to find good ways to study them probably requires understanding music, dance, theatre… And probably help from a true professional. Too often scientists think that because they themselves do art x as a hobby, they can provide the necessary understanding of art x into the project. Would you trust someone who does statistics just for their hobby to analyse your data?

We are currently on the final stretch of our Social eMotions project. This was a true collaboration between choreographer-dancers and scientists. Being able to work together takes time and effort, though. We started our project by spending a couple of days in the lab, getting to know the scientists’ tools and ways of thinking and working, and then a day at a dance studio, learning similar things about dancing and creating choreographies. (Or mostly, just moving in space.) This doesn’t turn the choreographer into a movement scientist, or the scientist into a dancer, but it fuels mutual respect, which is the most valuable currency in collaboration.

Art challenges boundaries, which is also what science should do. There is also conformist art that copies what has been done before or only adds to it in small increments. But that type of art does not tend to survive. There’s much more incremental and conformist science. Good science and good art have a lot in common. Both make very difficult things look effortless and easy. Both change the way in which we look at the world. Both evoke emotional responses and inspire people long after their creators have turned to dust.

*It was actually Romain Bigé at the Joint Improvisation Meeting, a small event in Paris that turned out to have a very large impact on a lot of things.

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