BRIDGING THE DIVIDE: COLLABORATION, COMMUNICATION AND EDUCATION IN ART AND SCIENCE

Author:
Nathan Cohen, Artist; MA Art and Science Course Director, University of the Arts London, UK

Abstract

As an artist and educator who works collaboratively with scientists I am interested in the potential for developing meaningful discourse and research that engages at the interface between disciplines and provides fertile ground for creative enquiry and experimentation.

Interdisciplinary research and collaborations in the field of art and science embrace the potential to explore diverse approaches to understanding the nature of the world we live in and the development of ways to communicate this. In this short paper I will be considering the potential in collaborative investigation and the experience of establishing the MA Art and Science at University of the Arts London.

The creation of a new interdisciplinary Masters programme: MA Art and Science at Central Saint Martins (CSM), University of the Arts London (UAL)

The MA Art and Science is an interdisciplinary course that I have been responsible for initiating and developing at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London in the UK. My interest in this area of research stems from professional experience as an artist collaborating with scientists and in areas of discourse and pedagogic research that engage at the interface between disciplines providing fertile ground for enquiry and experimentation.

In proposing the creation of the Masters programme in Art and Science at CSM I wished to reflect the considerable interest in art-science relationships internationally, evident in collaborations, publications, conferences, exhibitions and media devoted to exploring this area.

There is also  a desire among  students to engage in areas of research that are not limited to a particular perspective, and a keen interest in exploring creative possibilities to be found in a range of disciplines and fields of enquiry that are embraced by art and science. Consequently, following completion of an exhaustive 2 year validation and consultative process, the MA Art and Science is now into its second year of delivery (http://www.csm.arts.ac.uk/courses/ma-art-and-science/ ).

Context

We live in an interconnected world and the way in which we acquire and disseminate knowledge should seek to build upon this. While we may have different approaches internationally to how education is structured and delivered it is important to find ways to enable the exchange of ideas, and find the means to do this which enhance understanding and can lead to the development of new ideas, technologies and applications(see suggested action #2).

The English educational system continues to evolve although historically student progression to Higher Education has followed a path of increasing specialism toward University entry resulting in a progressive narrowing of subjects studied by students at pre-Degree level. Typically, there has been a tendency to make study choices that lead to specialism within the arts, humanities, sciences, law or medicine although Universities are increasingly aware of demand for interdisciplinary programmes and are making provision for this.

The MA Art and Science is conceived to be attractive to individuals from science, humanities, arts, design and engineering backgrounds. The subject itself embraces the potential to explore diverse creative approaches to understanding the nature of the world we live in and the development of ways to communicate this, and the curriculum is devised to enable each individual to bring to the course their own experience and insights while gaining new knowledge, skills and understanding as the programme progresses.

To date applicants have come from a healthy range of educational and experiential backgrounds, including science, arts, design and humanities  graduates; scientists, artists, designers, performers, linguists, film makers, and those with professional or other work-life and research experience.  For some the course is attractive as a means to further their studies in a field of interest having already completed postgraduate, and in a couple of instances, research degrees.

Development

In developing the course content it has been necessary to give particular thought to the context of the institution where it is delivered and the resources available in London, nationally and internationally that support the students’ research and ambitions to develop their ideas. University of the Arts London is an internationally recognised arts institution but it does not have a science faculty. Consequently, the programme capitalizes on the strengths the University has to offer, particularly in the fields of arts, design and innovation, and compliments this with external resources that address areas of expertise that had not formerly been available within the institution. The establishment of the MA Art and Science course also contributes to the University’s expanding access to a broader intellectual and research base.

If I were to have the opportunity to develop this programme within a University which offers the arts,  sciences and humanities I could envisage different approaches to how this might be done and would be excited to explore these possibilities. But I have found that working with the University of the Arts has allowed for a creative approach to curriculum development and planning and encouraged the establishment of contact with external resources at an early stage in the planning.

This has resulted in an outward facing programme which builds on the possibilities of working with a range of external research institutions of international standing (Wellcome Collection, British Library, Wakehurst Place Kew Gardens, Gordon Museum, MRC Institute of Neuropharmacology Oxford, among others) and access to experts in a wide range of science subjects who enhance the course offering and enable students to engage with professionals in their specialist fields of study. This forms an important part of the curriculum allowing research to be experienced in context and encouraging an investigative approach to learning and network building.

This is complemented by studio  based activity taught by a team of artists, designers, and scientists whose work embraces a wide range of approaches enabling students to learn about processes of visualizing and making, the results of which are evident in work presented for public exhibition and as part of their project research. This is another significant component of the course and one that has proven attractive to students wishing to explore their ideas across a range of media and to develop new problem solving and visualization skills that translate and communicate across disciplines.

The interdisciplinary MA Art and Science course has also proven to be attractive to a group of students who may not otherwise have thought to apply to the University and from the outset we have recruited as intended from a spectrum of educational and professional backgrounds in the arts, humanities and sciences. The nature of the interdisciplinary subject choice, and that this is the first time it has been offered as a distinct Masters programme with a qualification in the subject of Art and Science, appears to be a significant factor in early success in attracting applications. The course appears to be addressing a genuine interest in the field of art and science and it is my expectation that this will continue to grow. As more courses that engage with this area of interdisciplinary research emerge internationally, so the subject should gain a pedagogic critical mass with a resulting evolution of discourse and creative output.

The aim of the MA Art and science is also to encourage students and graduates to undertake research and production that may have implications for discovery and invention across and within disciplinary fields, with the potential to develop innovative ideas and work that broaden the horizons and understanding of the subject.

Collaboration

Developing discourse and research that engages at the interface between disciplines provides fertile ground for creative enquiry and experimentation. A collaborative process between scientists and artists engenders a mutual respect for different approaches to discovery and invention and a preparedness to question convention.

It takes time to build relationships of trust and awareness that, while unpredictable, can result in collaborative endeavour leading to new insights and ways of thinking that inform future research and experimentation. For meaningful exchanges to take place scientists and artists need to comprehend one another, and in the process benefit from appraising their research from alternative perspectives.

Exploration and expression by visual means offers one approach to achieve a greater understanding of what we encounter and conceive for both artists and scientists, and encourages a wider audience to engage with the process.

In our endeavours to comprehend we make connections between experiences, render ideas tangible and conceive and test propositions and hypotheses in ways that enable others to broaden their vision and enhance their quality of life. This is a human endeavour that is served well by a creative correspondence between scientists and artists.

On the MA Art and Science students are offered opportunities to engage in and develop their own collaborative projects with scientists, designers, artists, researchers and other institutions supporting research in art and science. This has already resulted in exhibitions and publications (‘A Nervous Encounter’ with the Oxford MRC Institute of Neuropharmacology:  http://blog.nervousencounter.com/; and an exhibition ‘Discoveries: Encounters between Art and Science’planned at the British Library for March 2013), with new collaborative projects in the pipeline.

One of the key issues facing the development of art and science discourse is the approach the science community adopts in seeking engagement with this interdisciplinary area of research. For some scientists there is a personal interest and realisation that alternative perspectives allow for potentially novel developments, methodologies and solutions to problem solving. Public engagement has been another driving factor, as funding for research in science is increasingly related to the need to satisfy requirements to explain this to a wider audience, particularly where public sources of funding are involved.

There is a concern that art and artists are perceived as offering a user friendly interface for science to ‘get its message across’, and it is important to ensure that collaborative projects are undertaken in ways that enable the potential for shared insights to mutually advance knowledge in the related fields of enquiry (see suggested actions #1-3).

While the MA Art and Science course is still young we have already begun to build collaborative relationships with science and arts institutions and the development of networks with individuals and organizations interested in exploring art-science relationships. This benefits the students in their studies and encourages them to make their own connections and associations that should prove invaluable in establishing their creative, intellectual and professional practice. It should also encourage a greater sharing of knowledge and potentially pooling of intellectual resource between educational institutions and I anticipate that that this will evolve internationally. Students today are used to tapping into networks of knowledge that transcend national borders and are increasingly seeking ways to advance their understanding across a range of approaches, platforms and media (see suggested action #2).

 

SUGGESTED ACTIONS:

(1)    Funding streams for the sciences and arts and humanities may be quite distinct and do not necessarily embrace or encourage an interdisciplinary approach to innovation and investigation.

Suggested Action #1:

Public research funding should be inclusive of, and make provision for, interdisciplinary research across the arts and sciences. Initially, where relevant, publically funded research grant proposals could be requested to address interdisciplinary research potential.

Stakeholders: Foundations, Government Agencies, And Other Funders; Universities and Educational Institutions; Administrators In Educational Institutions; Educators; Scientists; Artists; Designers; Industry

(2)    Art and Science research is international in scope and could benefit from a comprehensive and accessible published and peer reviewed knowledge base.

Suggested Action #2:

An international web-based network and database could be established pooling expertise and innovation among educational institutions internationally, that could host an accessible database of historical and current research projects, publications, exhibitions and other manifestations relating to art and science research.

Stakeholders: Universities; Libraries; National Academies; Educators; Students; Researchers; Public; Artists; Scientists; Designers; Engineers.

(3)    Art and Science researchers and graduates have the ability to contribute innovatively to industry.

Suggested Action #3:

Establish an international network of research placements with companies that could benefit from professional exchange (i.e. with appropriate safeguards for commercial, patent and copyright) with arts and science researchers, graduate and doctoral students.

Stakeholders: Students; Graduates; University Research Innovation Centres; Industry; Educators; Administrators in Educational Institutions