From workshop to academic laboratory, an artistic experience of transdisciplinarity

Jean Delsaux

Visual artist, Senior associate professor,  researcher at Institut Pascal
(mechanics, artificial perception applied to robotics, materials for information, bio procedures, waves).
Founder and codirector of Atelier Brouillard-Précis (1991-2005) workshop devoted to supporting artistic projects concerning digital technologies applied to moving and interactive.images.
Founder and director of LEEE Laboratory for Aestetics and space expérimentation.(since 2007).

My expérience of the relations between art, science and engineering leads me to make three observations :

I consider art, science, Design and engineering at the same level, and do not insert any « / » between these entities.

I’m convinced that the main obstacle one has to overcome is the one of misunderstanding due to the fact that from one discipline to another, we may use the same words but give them a completely different meaning.

The developpement of the relations between art and sciences, engineering and design depends mainly on common projects involving equaly motivated participants, which implies that the experiment would offer the same profit for each participant.

Atelier Brouillard-Précis.


This artists workshop was founded in Marseille in 1991. I conceived it as an open workshop in connection with academic laboratories and art schools.

My previous works as an artist were related to perception, urban space, multiscreen artistic displays.

My partners were audiovisual display system manufacturers (Delcom Germany), architects, philosophers (Vilem Flüsser) and art theoriticians (Edmont Couchot), artists and developpers (Piotr Kowalski, Michel Bret, Joan Logue, Orlan, Jacques Frety, Nicolas Bus) with whom we developped at the same time a theoritical reflexion concerning art and technology.

The problem reached was the difficulty for an independant artist to maintain these links in a permanent way, and even more to establish new links with disciplines like neuro physiology of perception, robotics, mechanics etc. So I decided, along with another artist, to create a new kind of workshop in France, equiped with Unix workstations, an experimental software devoted to artistic modelization, rendering and animation, a broadcast studio for Betacam SP post production, as a basis for the development of an artistic, scientific and technological network, a workshop where to experiment new ways of accessing the digital image, the passing from analogic to digital culture.

We first invited untrained artists and it was really an experiment to feel how these distinguished practitionners of video art or installations approached the digital, the fact that our software had no intuitive graphical developping interface, but required writing lines of code.

An artist like Gianni Toti (†) said he would never touch a keybord, but wanted us to provide « the all of the machine », that is, to exhibit the total content of the graphic computer, he exhausted three junior developpers really amazed by his demands. There was a powerful experiment for these master students to analyse the content of a computer and to have to try and explain him how the machine would work, as well as to get from this « poetronic » artist, informations about his conception of art and creation, the twists he permanently provoqued within the logical procedures.

The point was that we could experiment with the artists the paradigm change related to the representation of space, their perplexity facing this strange « virtual » space.

We had in that purpose to give them a previous training so that they could understand at least what was going on. Then the training was continued along the creation process.

Joan Logue asked us to modelize a golden frame she had photographed in the Louvre (Paris), at every stage of the modelizing and rendering process, she needed to see what she called « the real frame », while on another machine the line tests of animation were tried in wireframe. Photographer rand videographer, she was not used to anticipate the results in this way, of course in the early nineties, the computing time of an image was quite long, 25 frames for one second lasted sometimes one day, and we could not afford to make movement tests with rendered images.

We experimented the phenomenology of perception and behaviors within the space along with artists that freshly discovered it. This was the reason for us to develop our links with neuro and psycho cognitive sciences.

Nevertheless, Orlan had the opportunity to work with a young engineer who had developped a morphing software and they created images resulting of morphing between herself and reproduction of the female archetypes she had choosen in art history.

We had first to realize snapshots, that is still frames of her reproducing the lighting and the point of view of the different paintings. Realizing this kind of analogic simulation was possible because we were trained as artists, we could then digitize and experiment immediately in the morphing process, thanks to the disposal we had set up.

Then she explained to the engineer that she was really interested in the missmatches occuring during the morphing process. Effectively, this artist who transformed her face and body by  cosmetic surgery, according the paintings, wanted to underline the fact that cosmetic surgery exposes the subject to unexpected failures and she wanted to compare the selfportrait made on the body-machine and the one made by the computing machine.

The young developper was first really ashamed to show pictures he considered as technical mistakes, but later on, during the collaboration process , he understood the concept and was afterwords the best engineer we could work with.

The experiment was really exiting and full of results, but the difficulties were really too important for the invited untrained artists, and therefore for us.

We decided then to invite artists aware of the digital technologies, mainly programming various disposals.

It seems important, as far as art and research are concerned, to consider separately the training and the practice, even if the training should be refered to a practice, so that the practice should not be delayed by the necessities of learning new logics, environments, approching a new culture.

Suggested action 1

Universities should open sections devoted to the transdisciplinary training organizing a link between the artistic culture, humanities, and scientific and technological culture. The so trained students could then perform the synthesis betwween the modusses operandi, different cultures and thus enable a cultural confrontation.

The purpose is not to train absolutely only people able to be performative in both fields but people who specialise themselves in a discipline and are able to collaborate with other specialists.

These sections have of course to be provided with spaces (workshops) and technical equipment, technical support and maintainance, artistic and scientific environment.

The second phase of our experiment, which involved artists aware of digital technologies and scientific culture, reached also a difficulty : one person cannot master the complete set of abilities and knowledges required in an art process concerned by science and techniques.

The various projects we developped involved the participation of various participants, each one mastering a particuliar know how.

The problem then was to be able to build the appropriate crew for the concerned project.


Suggested action 2 :

In a structure devoted to the development of SEAD projects, there should be a person whose ability would be to analyse the project and determine the appropriate crew to fulfil the project.

The second difficulty we had to overcome was then to enable everyone in the crew to understand the language of the other participants. Speaking about spaciality for example is really different whether you are a visual artist, a musician, a physician, a mathematician, an engineer, an architect etc.

Suggested action 3 :

The development in universities, art schools and engineering schools of transdisciplinary subjects involving this aspect of mutual understanding. This point is different from suggested action 1 as it emphathize the language problem, the theoritical aspect, the understanding, and not necessarily the development of procedures, projects, realizations.

LEEE (Laboratory for Aesthetics and Space Experimentations) and Institut Pascal (Laboratory of robotics and artificial vision).

Colleagues with whom I developped other initiatives more precisely involved in this field suggested also a convergent approach of the matter:

Pascale Weber, Multimedia artist and Senior Lecturer in visual arts (University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) developped in a book we directed accordingly : De l’Espace virtuel, du corps en présence[1]. (Presses Universitaires de Nancy Ed.) an interesting experiment concerning the development of a collaborative platform devoted to SEAD projects and the reasons of its failure.

The artists we were needed a collaborative platform devoted to our crossed projects, so we decided to develop it along with colleagues computer scientists.

The point was that artists are trained to metaphorical language, developping projects by experimenting the results of the trial-and-essay method. And we wanted to conceive the platform alternating an experimental and a more theoritical  approach.

That is :

Experimental : creation of spaces, templates, simulated digital functionings, for the projection of the artist taking part, from the development of the tool to a well tried praxis of the platform. The artist is used to work through sensitive equivalents so as to widen futhermore its metalanguage.

Theoritical approach : definition of the technical specifications of the platform.

This way of doing is far from what developpers we worked with were used to : they usualy start with specifications, in order to face a clearly defined request. The question is then to decide wether the artist/user should describe his needs in technological and « rational » terms for the developper or if the developper should analyse himself the request and translate it in his own language .

Another way of doing would be to let the user describe his needs progressively and continuously, avoiding permanent redirectings (in a flexible and not fixed way).

Very often the request is perfectly defined but doesnt suit the technological procedures.

Suggested action 4 :

The solution would probably consist in organizing, all along the project development, systematic meeting times during which would be defined the constraints for the artist and instructions for the computer scientist

The difficulty is obvious and leads usualy developpers to conceive generic models one has later on to adapt to the needs of the user. Which implies a predominance and primacy of the computing models and a definition of the digital products not in term of of specific needs, but in term of qualifying options.

This has to be connected by the increasing power of hardware and software companies who impose their standards, their monopolistic domination over systems and software packages.

The open source philosphy is in that purpose a good answer, but we know also that it requires yet a sophisticated know-how as well. And above all, no matter the models can be, technology seems allways to be set first, needs and specific expectations being considered as seconds, functionality creating the need.

So even if this situation is specific and not exclusive of other configurations, it is widely represented.

Suggested action 5 :

Build teams that would elaborate new procedures, new relationships between members, whatever would be the expertise of each member. These teams should have time and ressources to fulfil their goals : developping tools, situations, procedures involving artists, computer scientists, ergonomists, neurocogniticians, engineers, …

This implies budget, long term research, hability of defining the program in complete autonomy.

The development of a project can also work out its own tools, a projet can exist as a drawing, a draft, an animation, a métaphor, a choreography, a picture book, a textual description.

Thierry Château, Professor of robotics and computer vision leads the ComSee research team at Pascal Institute (Ex. Lasmea). Main research interests : Visual Tracking, Pattern Recognition and machine learning, within the field of Computer Vision.

For Thierry Château, the problematics raised by the artists allow almost to be early of phase with the Industry. The experience the lab had with dancers raised with an unsual accuracy the problem of latency. Artist are really sensitive to the delay due to latency (response time of interactive devices). A practicle application was that after working with dancers who had particuliar requisits about latency, the developpers could propose an interresting tool to EDF (french company providing electicity) for the training of emmployees working inside nuclear stations.

So one can capitalise the acquired experience.

The other advantage for a researcher is the determination of new research fields due to the artists’ expectations and requests. Artists says T. Château have a different approach and imply for the computer scientist to look at things under a new light.

The « Institut Pascal welcomes two artists and one ergonomist in its teams to develop projects embeded in its research program.

This opportunity values the suggested action n°3

I also had a very interesting collaboration with Delcom Company (Germany) in the eighties, this company producing dynamic digital videowall systems invited artists to perform on its product. They said that « artists are the Formula 1 of our system, they raise problems we have to solve, which leads us to improve our system. Artist imagine situations we didn’t anticipate, they propose other ways of using the devices we produce. »

Suggested action 6

Organize meetings, seminars involving major or local industrials, in order to developp with the support of ministry, local administration, chamber of commerce, the commitments of the industrial and financial sectors to transdisciplinary projects.

In these sessions, each participant (provider, scientist, artist, engineer…) could propose his own research project. Then these projects, specificaly defined by a person, would be in turn rephrased by others. So within this appropriation logic, the exchange could really begin.

[1] « About virtual Space and  body in presence » So far only available in french