Monday, December 19, 2016
ArtScientist/ScienceArtist: Finding a Creative-Intellectual Room of One's Own
UPDATE Dec 21, 2016
There is an issue by Interdisciplinary Science Reviews dedicated to the delineation of the two cultures problem that non-academics and academics from poorly provisioned institutions will not be able to access. When I get to reading the issue, I will do a separate post on the debates in another blog post. This will be filed under the label of "artscience/scienceart" as part of all the projects that will fall under the rubric; I will post updates on the projects in this blog.
UPDATE Dec 20, 2016
The post also appears here.
Here's another holiday read recommendation
Sandy's Circus: A Story of Alexander Calder. I discovered this book when I visited a small exhibit of Calder's work at the Nasher Museum (part of Duke University) back in 2014.
Now that I am going from full-time vacation to half-time in the week leading up to Christmas, the start of the second week of vacation cum transition period is also a good time to do a sort of personal review of a book, David Edwards's ArtScience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation, and explain what it means for me as I am now configuring my research programme for the next year, to combine work started in the past I had not the opportunity to continue, with the work I do now. Most importantly, I have to figure out how to work with what I do have, or that which I can access.
I bought this book on a whim, four years ago, from the enormous Powell's warehouse in Portland, OR, and only finished reading it yesterday. It is a quarto-size book of about 190++ pages, and quite an accessible read despite being a scholarly work, although this depends on the reader's inclination and how much time he/she wants to take with it. Edwards disseminates the stories of his exemplars across seven chapters, but manages to maintain coherence to their stories, for the most part. He does this to highlight relevant aspects of their stories to the theme of each of the chapter they appear in. Edwards uses the term artscientists in the book, though I would like to introduce a not-quite-mirror version in the form of the science-artist, for reasons I will explain in the next paragraph. The art scientist is a term to denote those whose work do not quite fit into the box of their disciplines, yet whose explorations outside that box are integral to inventing novel, though not entirely unprecedented when viewed tranhistorically, ways of not only thinking about their fields, but also how to make their contributions matter beywond the confines of their respective field.
As Edwards is particularly interested in those whose work straddle the artistic and the scientific, he does not spend much time in talking about those whose work are largely confined to singles cultural fields (be they only within the humanities, the social sciences, or the sciences/engineering), probably because they would not fulfill the goal of bridging the "two cultures" first explicitly underlined by C.P. Snow, nor would they be accurately considered as art-scientists or science-artists. Nevertheless, one could consider the book itself as an engagement into transdisciplinary epistemology and practice by nature of its advocacy for the production of ways of knowing that are still emergent. I will not actually talk about the cases Edwards uses in the book as this is not that kind of review, but rather, how the arguments of the book work for me intellectually, and for my intellectual projects. But I highly recommend that book to anyone interested in the discussion of transdisciplinary artscience practices as the explication of the topic in this book is quite inspiring, even if not perfect. Moreover, unlike works that would take very particular views, Edwards seems open to considering the multiple ways in which such practices manifest not merely within obvious sites, or sites that are familiar ground to him, but outside of those comfort zones.
The artscientist is someone who does not feel that using merely the tools dictated by the authorities of their discipline help them in answering the questions they pose, or even allow them to bring their own disciplinary professional engagement to a level that is satisfying and fulfilling - which is a sense of a life lived to the brim. While Edwards uses the term artscientist to discuss those who make art a part of their scientific method inasmuch as they make science a practice of their art, I would like to talk about the science-artist to denote [natural] scientists (or one who identifies as a scientist, even if not professionally), including engineers and technologists, who do not turn to the usual method for approaching the science but uses art, broadly defined, as their method and approach. They have natural affinity with the process of artistic creation (or artistic approach) to working with the science of their choice - taking on the tools of an artist and not calling themselves scientists even if they might possess the requisite specialty knowledge (or almost equivalent level of knowledge); and in some cases, even advanced training in the sciences. Some may even choose not to work within any field that does not challenge the dominant doctrines of their scientific training. They choose to work with their science outside the constraints of the laboratory, a specific fieldwork as usually defined by their science, or the computer and blackboard; however, such choices preclude complete disconnection from traditional sites of work.
The art can come in many forms - it could be textual-visual, tactile, kinetic, audio, and any other form and method of artistic expression. Some of the cases explicated by Edwards represent those who could potentially be identify as such, though for the most part, his artscientists are still wedded to some form of disciplinarity, even if they assimilate processes and ideas that fall outside of a discipline they identify with, at some level. As he admits, almost all of his case studies receive support, at varying levels, from institutions even if that support was not directly for the process of their engagement, but rather, the successful outcome stemming from the process. The way an science-artist works follows the indefinable/lateral processes that Edwards talks about, but their work might not necessarily be accepted by other scientists, or even those who profess themselves as guardians of the scientific method (which could therefore include philosophers of science, historians of science, and sociologists of science). In other words, the work of this group of people might be largely invisible, or perhaps only be known by other identifiers that obfuscate the science-artist nature of the work or process. One thing that Edwards mentioned in the final chapter of the book is revealing of the true nature of the art-scientist/science-artist - their work cannot be replicated or repeated easily by others because they are not using methods that could be readily identified or even transmitted, not even by another artscientist/science-artist. In other words, the method is not methodical, the system is systematic but not reducible to distinguishable parts.
Even as he tells stories of these inspirational men and women who consider the process as important, if not more important, than the end goal of the achievement, and acknowledges the difficulties under which they operate, many of his examples are successful men and women from largely privileged and well-resourced backgrounds - if they were not already privileged from the beginning, they attained the position of privilege by the time they were at the prime of their creative lives. Even when there does not seem to be a specific and well-defined resource or institution that supports their work, these men and women have enough access to certain other resources to allow their work to continue on the side. It is the same whether one operates from the first world, with many resources, or in the third world, where the resources are less accessible to those not from a sufficiently elite background. That said, I am interested in exploring how one could make the ideas of artscience practice work for someone without institutional support and how one could go about building the required networks and resources, as individuals and groups, to do the work.
Most importantly, I am interested in knowing how one could integrate many of the foundational inquiries of an artscience/science-art work into larger social-epistemological issues involving problems of disability (one of the gripes I have with the book is the lack of a sufficiently diverse example of an artscientist/science-artist who has to grapple with much more than epistemic/intellectual/creative resistance to their cause), lack of material resource (as a neoliberal economy has made less and less knowledge accessible while expecting 'originality' that stems from having access), social prejudices/bigotry, and many other forms of inqeuity that the knowledge/creative worker operates from. For artscience not to replicate the same hegemonic and stiffling ideologies of the other academic/industrial/'creative' institutions, it must not operate from a position of political indifference or ignorance. Edwards addresses how a certain level of socio-political awareness drove decision of his examples to engage in the work they do, and the work itself does not necessarily represent a foundational invention at an epistemic level, but rather, a form of socio-epistemic innovation, i.e. when a medical doctor and specialist uses not only her medical knowledge, but her interest in performing arts, visual art, and public communication, to allow for social medicine to engage directly with the scientific aspect of the medicine (though probably not in the way that a rigid ideologue of a logico-deductive version of scientific method would recognise as engagement). However, I am curious if one can make foundational level engagement matter even to those who are not direct beneficiaries to such innovations, but who can derive less direct benefits. As a practising social-epistemologists, I daresay that there is a lot of room for that level of engagement in artscience or science-arti practices, although it depends as much on the person involved as on the work done.
One of the continuous theme throughout the book is that of idea translation, and the acknowledgement that the idea translation can come in many forms that could be far from straightforward, heuristic in nature, non-linear, and prone to failure (depending on one's ability to find resonance with one's target audience). Although most of the chapters of the book are focused on examples of individuals who function largely from the academy or from public institutions, Edwards also provides examples of how those in the industry, such as venture capitalist and consultants, engage across the spectrum of art and science in the services they offer. But as Edwards acknowledges the constraints that probably make the engagement they make. Therefore, however exceptional they may seem to the industry they are in, it is possible that their contributions might still be considered mundane when viewed from a global and broader perspective of potential that could emerge from artscience/science-art practices. It is my intent to see if there is a way for breaking out of this impasse, although it might mean having to start with less ambition and doing what is more coherent even as one moves towards increasingly risky ventures.
Another interesting argument Edwards makes in the book, and which I agree with completely, is the lack of going beyond the ideas-scheme when it comes to academy - a system that does not reward that academic who tries to operationalise their work beyond the publication of their idea schemes that come from their working in isolation or collaboratively (the difficulties and false promises of collaboration is very well-addressed in the book); or to fulfill the expectation of grants they are expected to obtain to fulfill the expectation of their KPIs). Edwards mostly limit his examples to potential collaboration with industry (commercial) and certain artistic organisations - I would like to see how this could be done in collaboration with other forms of social-entrepreneurship. Many NGOS start up but fail because they lack the spectrum of human resource that are capable of making maintaining the good idea seed through idealism with strong doses of savvy and pragmatism that only those with experiences that come from engaging with a variety of work/situations outside of strict boundaries could offer. Many NGOS fail, or fall into stasis, because many lack precisely that ability to synergise and synthesise a diverse, and not even always ideologically homogeneous, workforce, while the problem of collaborative effort and sustainability are under-addressed. If one were to start up an NGO that is in the service of producing ideas and workable recommendations for society from a non-traditional angle, how could that look like?
Finally, given my own interest in conceptualising novelty, there are many examples of novelty in different forms and practices that serve as the roadmap for researchers and scholars such as myself attempting to understand what it would mean to design and implement a research program that is novel from a social-epistemological perspective. This brings me back to the earlier connection that I have made to transdisciplinarity, and how an artscientist/science-artist is truly a practitioner of transdisciplinary social-epistemology, although the outcome of that practice could range from one that is not coherent but still recognisable, to one that is coherently unrecognisable, or even that which is neither coherent nor recognisable stemming not from vagueness, but rather, from one's inability to pin them to anything familiar to one's experience.
In reading that book, I am reminded again of an ambition I had from fifteen years ago, fresh off college, of how I could find overlaps in the arts and sciences and find a fulfilling niche for myself, working at that intersection. I moved away from science, which was my original training, not because I got fed-up or bored with it (I found the curriculum boring and not engaging but that was the problem of the course structure, not with the subject matter itself), because I felt an absence I could not properly articulate then. That search brought me into the humanities, and for a few years, I was happily immersed in the field, though I never forget my first love, which was science. By the time I came to the PhD, I knew I was not a fully converted humanist but rather, one who needs to exist in a composite world. I pushed that thought aside because I felt I needed to conform to get ahead, but the problem keeps cropping up and I realise I have difficulties identifying myself with any particular discipline, which makes applying for a tenure-track job (or even most postdocs), a challenge. While my colleagues and friends largely wrestle with what jobs are available within the interdiscipline of their discipline, or discipline of a seemingly interdisciplinary position, and apply accordingly, worrying only if they will get to the next level of consideration, my anxieties come in a completely different form, because academically speaking, I am equivalent to a homeless waif.
For a long time, I wrestled with the possibility that I might be too fickle to commit to any particular discipline or profession but now I realise that I am committed, but not to something that could be considered as regular at this time. Even before graduate school, I had thought of becoming an entrepreneur (perhaps a hybrid of social-intellectual entrepreneur) in order to preserve an independence I protect so jealously - much of my knowledge of entrepreneurship stems from the various jobs I have held to support my 'academic habit'; family, friends and acquaintances who are entrepreneurs, and my own research into the different facets of the entrepreneurial position. While pragmatism and profitability are both important, they are not the only main determinants to a successful business of any sort. Moreover, if I were to sell something, it has to be something that I would be interested in, as a consumer of that product, and that would be something crucial to the shaping of my professional agenda in 2017. The book reminds me that there are people out there wrestling with this difficulty at varying levels, and the point is as much in the journey as in the endgame.