Arts-based research II – reflections

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Yesterday I posted my initial thoughts on arts-based research, the topic of today’s panel discussion. Here are my brief mental notes from the morning’s event–they are a mixed bag since I wasn’t taking notes.

There was first an intro to research at Aalto, delivered by Ahti Salo, the vice-dean of the School of Science (my school). He presented the research strategy of Aalto University, which already strongly promotes innovation, multi- and interdisciplinarity, and in general, sounds exactly what a modern university should be doing.

A key distinction here, one that I hadn’t quite internalised before, was between multi-disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. In the former, a complex problem is tackled using multiple different scientific approaches simultaneously, but in a parallel sort of way. Interdisciplinarity is more of a merger of disciplines, a creation of something new that is then applied to a complex problem. In multi-disciplinarity the disciplines themselves remain more or less independent or intact (albeit probably enriched as a result of the collaboration).

Next, the keynote speaker of the day was Ariane Koek, formerly at BBC and then at CERN, where she set up the Arts @ CERN programme that brings artists to CERN to work alongside the scientists.

Hers was a very interesting presentation, mainly from the point of view of the role that art and artists could have in a very specialised and focused organisation of scientists. Typically, many people might see that artists are there to help in science communication, and that they’d be expected to produce works of art no matter how short their visit at CERN. Ms Koek’s vision was that the artists are there to do artistic research, on a equal ground to the scientists doing basic research: if it takes years for the scientists to develop an experiment, why would the artist be expected to produce a work in just a few weeks?

I think this is a very important point, and something to be aware of. When scientists and artists collaborate, the scientist is usually the one in a stronger, more powerful position, and the relationship is usually not that of equals. The scientist is usually better funded, perhaps more respected, more permanently employed etc. Thus it needs conscious effort to make sure the relationship is not that of science colonising art, but a respectful, equal partnership.

In the panel discussion, we talked about art-science collaborations at a practical level. First, the topic of common language was brought up. It can be difficult in multi-disciplinary work even when it is a collaboration between scientists in nearby fields, and can be exacerbated when working across longer disciplinary distances. “Attention” means very different things to a neuroscientist and an artist. Fundamentally, though, language reflects differences in the ways of thinking, ways of determining what is meaningful, what is good: the ontologies and epistemologies. I shared our experience from the Social eMotions project, of setting aside plenty of time in the beginning of the project to develop understanding (and respect) for each others’ ways of working. We also wrote a lot in the beginning, just to learn the languages each of us used to describe the things we were doing.

I also mentioned that we had been thinking about “communities of practice” as a model of what we wanted to be as a group of scientists and choreographer/dancers. This was picked up by professor Ramia Maze in the panel, and she pointed out the the practice part of that is really important, and that it is often easier to find common ground when you are making things, doing stuff, than when you are just talking or writing. This is true, again, I never thought of it quite in this way, but I agree.

We were also discussing whether Aalto is daring enough, do we take enough risks and are we open enough for unexpected things. Then, out of the blue it was suggested that in Aalto we should have a “Collider laboratory” (inspired by CERN) for arts-based researchers to meet, and it possibly was established at that moment. That is quite daring, very agile and pretty brilliant if it actually happens.

We need forums where we can talk to each other and do stuff together. People need to be deliberately pushed towards each other, we need matchmakers who know lots of people and can introduce them to each other. In this discussion I mentioned AivoAALTO as a project that was designed to foster multidisciplinarity and provide a forum for not only talking but doing things together, and it was very successful, I think. I hope Aalto Brain Centre can also work in this kind of capacity, although it is much more narrow in its focus, compared to AivoAALTO. But we try, and will next Monday do just this type of work, when Marc Cavazza will give a talk on interactive narratives and brain-computer interfaces. Another fruit from the AivoAalto tree.

It was pointed out a couple of times in different ways, that in these art-science contexts, it is often better to aim for finding good questions rather than answers. Again, this is very important, although I haven’t really formulated it this way before. But my interactions with artists, mainly musicians and dancers, are my primary sources of research questions. The best antidote for narrow-minded incrementalism is the lateral, creative thinking that artists are experts of.

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