Ground Works is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal of arts-integrative exemplars. Below is a compendium of exemplary interdisciplinary arts-inclusive collaborative research projects, and a hub for reflection on the processes that drive such work.
Latest Special Collection
Ground Works periodically invites guest editors to organize Special Collections that will invite related submissions and gather examplars that call attention to key themes surrounding deep disciplinary integration.
These Collections, and the projects and commentaries represented within them, intend to deepen our understanding of the ways to effectively weave arts-based inquiry into the scholarly fabric of research.
Aaron D. Knochel
What are the elements necessary to create a vibrant ecology of research where art and design inquiry may flourish alongside, within, and out of social and physical science research that is so deeply embedded within the fiber of research-oriented universities? In this special collection of Ground Works, the project work and commentaries explore vibrant ecologies of research, deepening our understanding of the institutional, social, and epistemological systems that effectively weave arts-based inquiry into the scholarly fabric of research.
The core of Ground Works is a compendium of projects, critically reviewed for their interdisciplinary research aims and impact.
These articles aim to represent the many and diverse ways interdisciplinary work takes place and promote original reflections on arts-integrative processes.
Realm of the Dead (“Realm”) is a mixed-media installation performance where the installation can also be given separately as an art exhibit. A blend of social work and arts research, Realm incorporates practice-led, engagement, and design research – visual and performance art practices actively involving both research collaborators and audiences. Grounded in social work research and content, Realm explores my life, the life of an immigrant to the United States who grew up in Brazil at the time of the military dictatorship (1964‒1985). Realm connects social work research content as it explores personal and social consequences of psychosocial issues: grief and loss, gender nonconformity, sexual orientation, and undocumented immigration status. Using critical autoethnography along with visual art and performance, in Realm, I aimed to: (1) excavate my life experiences through self-analysis; (2) develop text and artifacts (assemblage sculptures) representing those experiences, and (3) share the results as performances and art exhibits. Drawing on Popular Education – as advanced by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921–1997) and by Augusto Boal (1932–2009), founder of the Theater of the Oppressed, Realm requires audience participation and fosters social transformation. Realm is based on Marília, a one-person play that was performed on Theater Row New York City where it won the United Solo Festival (2016) Best Documentary Script award. Realm represents the cemetery where Marília, my sister, who died in an accident at the age of three, was buried. Realm is my journey out of a childhood of poverty, sexual trauma, and domestic violence. Arriving undocumented in the United States in 1987, I ultimately built a life as a United States citizen and out, gender non-conforming gay “man.”
The integration of environmental science with arts and humanities (eSAH) has the potential to advance public understanding of science while inspiring emotional responses and attitude shifts that lead to pro-environmental behavior. The In a Time of Change (ITOC) program, an eSAH incubator in Alaska, uses place as a boundary object to bridge relationships between artists, writers, and scientists. Participants co-investigate a place-based environmental theme over the course of a year, then present their work at a public exhibit. At these exhibitions, the art and writing about place become boundary objects themselves around which broader publics gather to engage with ideas and landscapes. In this article, we describe the ITOC program and the broader ecosystems of eSAH work in which it is nested, including the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network, where most sites host some kind of eSAH inquiry. We then use the case study of a recent ITOC project, Microbial Worlds, to demonstrate the ways relationships between artists, writers, and scientists are transmitted to audiences through eSAH collaborative exhibits, resulting in impacts to audience knowledge and attitudes about the natural world and broad support for eSAH approaches to environmental problem solving.
ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) was a ten-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that supported the field of creative placemaking – the intentional integration of arts, culture, and community-engaged design strategies into the process of equitable community planning and development. Within this mandate, ArtPlace conducted the “Translating Outcomes” research initiative from 2015 to 2020 – an incremental, segmented approach to building creative placemaking knowledge for and with a diverse range of community development practitioners. Recognizing that comprehensive community development is composed of many professional disciplines, ArtPlace identified ten segments of the field that are often separated out as distinct municipal agencies, university departments, or funding streams: Agriculture & Food, Economic Development, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Immigration, Public Safety, Transportation, Workforce Development, and Youth Development. The Translating Outcomes research design took this segmentation as its road map and set out to analyze, make legible, and give language to how arts and cultural practitioners have long been partners in helping to achieve each of these sectors’ goals. For each of the ten sectors, ArtPlace engaged countless partners to conduct research, convene cross-sector working groups, publish field scans, and create resources specific to each sector. The effort was explicitly participatory, designed to elevate the knowledge and expertise of community residents, artists, and community development practitioners through interviews, convenings, and research review. As a hybrid institution straddling funding, policy, advocacy, and grassroots spheres, ArtPlace occupied a unique and privileged platform that allowed it to catalyze multidisciplinary research and action at the scale of this initiative. After providing a review of the published outputs and the work it has seeded in other sectors, I share in the following a reflection on both the conditions required to cultivate such cross-sector communities of practice and the opportunities for further scholarship that may impact vibrant ecologies of research.
ASKXXI: Arts + Science Knowledge Building and Sharing in the XXI (21st) Century was a US-Chile pilot program fostering inquiry and inter-hemispheric collaboration in art, emerging technologies, and the ecological sciences. Funded through a US Embassy public diplomacy grant, ASKXXI was an adaptive curriculum model situated on a collaborative platform of academic partners. This model provided freedom, flexibility, and responsiveness to dynamic learning and professional development opportunities. The year-long pilot was customized to a jury-selected cohort of Chilean professionals working at the intersection of art and science. Experiential, site-based workshops in arts, ecology, embryology, biomechanics, technology research, and science communication provided exposure to frontier research scientists, data visualization and immersive technology innovators, as well as contemporary artists focused on ecology. Despite the inherent challenges in launching such an independent and distributed program, ASKXXI expanded professional capacities and opportunities. Most importantly, the program activated a thriving ecosystem of practitioners working on pressing issues of sustainability, biodiversity loss, and climate change in both regions. An “ecology of practices” is the framework of our transdisciplinary pilot that tested the feasibility of interhemispheric knowledge exchange, interdisciplinary and institutional collaboration, and impact-focused cultural and scientific diplomacy.
The Pennsylvania State University 'Viral Imaginations: COVID-19' project is a curated, online, publicly-accessible gallery and archive of Pennsylvanians’ creative expressions in response to their first-person, lived coronavirus pandemic realities. Constructing a safe and empowering space for sharing experiences across strata of race, ethnicity, language, age, socioeconomic status, education, and ability, the archive provides a platform for the preservation of unique and diverse narratives. Designed as a highly interdisciplinary endeavor, 'Viral Imaginations' brings together specialists from multiple domains— including art education; bioethics; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; communication arts and sciences; information technology; and data analytics—into a robust, just-in-time ecology that produces public good and hybrid scholarship. Arising from a university seed-funding call for proposals during pandemic exigencies, this project demonstrates how coalescing around crisis can yield critical theory, scholarly discourse, and pedagogical opportunities across various fields through arts and humanities inquiries. Such scholarship, in turn, has cultivated interrelationships among 'Viral Imaginations' faculty, fomenting deep disciplinary integration, such as academic collaboration, faculty cross-appointment, and the introduction of expanded courses and novel academic program offerings. Artistic works within the 'Viral Imaginations' archive often challenge existing worldviews and traditions, calling individuals to question perceptions of reality, along with ethical judgments made in times of collective trauma. Ecologies of epistemology manifested in the visual and poetic work produced and exhibited in 'Viral Imaginations,' disrupting how we have known ourselves and our environment. Utilizing digital capacities to rearrange and reimagine order and relationality, the pandemic stories that emerge provide poignant insights into the affective state of humanity in crisis.
Fresh Press is an interdisciplinary research and making lab at the University of Illinois that explores the potential of regional sustainable agricultural fiber waste as art, paper, and objects. Our mission is to develop entrepreneurial and artistic markets for paper products originating from locally produced sustainable agricultural fiber waste (corn stalks, rye, hemp, and prairie grasses). We are divided into three organizational components: research, residencies, and outreach. Our research involves developing new models, methods, and applications for the integration of agri-fiber waste paper as a viable commercial alternative to wood pulp. Currently, our main research endeavors are the engineering of a conservation-grade sustainable case paper for use in mending books in the Illinois library collection, and the creation of agri-fiber building materials (bricks and insulation) for architecture. Fresh Press also seeks to shape and educate through papermaking workshops and lectures, steward the land we use in our craft, and investigate indigenous plant and agricultural fibers for the arts to help solve global environmental and social issues. Our recent artist residencies supported painters and sculptors who created visual experimentations, compositions, books, and sculptural collages that represent our ecosystems. As a place on this planet, we aim to leave a minimal footprint. We collect rainwater for papermaking, have installed solar panels on our partner farm, and do not use fossil fuels in our cooking processes for paper. We hope Fresh Press will become the model for small-scale sustainable papermaking, which can eventually be applied to a larger industrial practice.
From 2009-2011, we worked together at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (Broad Institute, n.d.), building on a study (Lieberman-Aiden & Van Berkum et al., 2009) that made it possible to explore how the human genome, the DNA contained in every cell of the body, folds in 3D.
At the outset of our collaboration, our approaches seemed so different as to be, perhaps, incommensurable. The scientists used tools like mathematics, computer science, and molecular biology, whereas the artistic toolkit was focused on the construction of physical objects, with a defined shape, area, and volume.
Yet over time, we came to realize that all of these tools were addressing the same goal: making invisible concepts manifest as an experience intelligible to the senses. From the beginning of the project, we worked together creating drawings. Over time, our interactions evolved to become free-flowing conversations while drawing, which became a way of seeing together. Our visual experimentations grew into a body of drawings, paintings, prints, mixed-media artworks, wood blocks, a dynamic video installation, and a suspended wire sculpture (Ranganathan, 2021), and helped advance the scientific community’s understanding of how the human genome folds.
Choreografish is a participatory research project leveraging virtual reality, arts engagement, and design to collaborate with young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The research team was motivated by a combination of observations: that some people with ASD experience social anxiety and attendant difficulties accessing social art forms such as dance and choreography, and that some have a predilection for developing patterns as a way of exerting control and making meaning. University of Utah faculty in engineering, dance, and social science collaborated with young adults with ASD on a virtual reality (VR) prototype to explore if synchronizing motion patterns to music may actually play well to the advantages of some on the autism spectrum and lower the barrier to a creative arts experience. Might choreographing in virtual reality help some people with ASD to self-manage anxiety?
Watching and Dreaming is a body of work that enables the viewer to peer inside the “mind” of a machine to observe its perceptions, mind wanderings, and dreams. This is not a metaphorical representation of dreams, nor a technical exercise in AI such as DeepDream  but the realization of a computational model of dreaming informed by cognitive neuroscience. This level of description avoids biases towards Jungian and Freudian psychology that assume dreaming is exclusively human. Dreams should not be considered independently of the perceptual capacities of the dreamer, and thus comparing this model to human perceptual abilities is problematic. For the audience, these artworks function as entry-points to consider the constructed nature of perceptions and the continuity of waking, mind wandering, and dreaming. For the artist, the artworks are sites of knowledge-making; it is through the making of artistic works that the model (computational formalization) and theory (argument that situates the model in empirical knowledge) are developed. The research underlying these artworks integrates knowledge in multiple disciplinary dimensions: (a) The computational modeling of dreaming processes (Zhang 2009; Treur 2011), (b) generative and media artworks engaging with the concept of memory and dreaming (Franco 2007; Dörfelt 2011), and (c) the conception of dreaming as imagination (Nir and Tononi 2010).
In this text, Watching and Dreaming (2001: A Space Odyssey) (2014) serves as an exemplar of the Watching and Dreaming body of work. The machine attempts to learn and predict Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey through the construction of its own subjective perception that is the basis of dreaming. “Mental” images generated during perception, mind wandering, and dreaming are subjective constructions bound to the peculiarities of the machine’s way of seeing. The body of work constitutes various manifestations of the cognitive model, not attempts to communicate the model’s mechanisms.
The Green Light SONATA project originated with a hunch in the engineering domain, but could only materialize through true collaboration of researchers working across disciplines. The project tested the hypothesis that translating simulated traffic information into music could lead to musical resolution of persistent traffic congestion. Our team—consisting of civil engineers, a composer/performer/computer music researcher, and an ethnomusicologist—proceeded to construct a model of an intersection in which each direction of traffic flow was assigned a musical pitch. Hearing these pitches as cues, musicians could interact with the sonified traffic to allow vehicles to proceed through the intersection. The result was a musical “gamification” of traffic flow in which the goal was to minimize the vehicles’ idle time. The next stage of this project will include public demonstration and testing sessions, involving students and additional musicians, to assess the concept’s viability, refine our methods, and gather further data. The team’s multidisciplinary dialogue takes us on productive tangents translating between different domains of musical and technical expertise. Moving forward, we plan to test additional methods of data sonification, manipulating additional musical variables (including pulse and rhythm, sequence, scales, ornaments, and other musical elements) and scaling up to model multiple consecutive intersections.
“Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Songwork” was a two-year research project that explored the construction of identity through the act of singing. The heart of the project was a six-month laboratory period in which the three of us worked closely together, on a full-time basis, as skilled performance practitioners investigating the cultural and epistemic potential of songs. In response to critical work in the humanities and social sciences calling for greater recognition of embodied knowledge and practice in emerging research paradigms, the Judaica project implemented a new type of laboratory, in which interactions of technique, identity, and place gave rise to new forms of knowledge. Drawing on critical theories of identity, as well as studies of laboratory research in the sciences, the project offers a model for the post-technoscientific laboratory as a “place of making” in which bodies, songs, actions, objects, and concepts come together in unexpected and generative ways. Among the key discoveries of the project was a new method for sustained, experimental, embodied practice, grounded in critical theories of gender and racial identity, as well as a new approach to the editing and co-authorship of video works generated through this process. These video materials are both data for cultural researchers and research outcomes in their own right.
Borrowing the Spanish word for “dinner,” CENAS is a transdisciplinary working group of scholars and artists developing, implementing and evaluating innovative approaches to healthy eating at the individual and community level, with arts practices at its center. Since 2012, CENAS has been involved with training, workshops, curriculum development, and research into the following questions: (1) Can the arts in general, and theatre-making in particular, empower individuals and communities to take charge of their health? (2) How does theatre-making relate to individual attitudinal and behavioral change? (3) What role does culture play in health? (4) Are the arts more effective in the long term than more traditional educational practices?
Our research with young people and community health workers suggests that cooking together, combined with theatre-making activities, is linked positively to “I can do this” attitudes. We believe making theatre, more than merely watching it, is the key. We link the various components involved in making theatre together to factors identified by health scientists as necessary for attitudinal and behavioral change to occur. A growing body of research suggests the importance of culturally informed interventions in health promotion, yet most definitions of “culture” are pretty narrow. We are working to develop a more robust and nuanced accounting for cultural background as health asset, initially through embodied storytelling practices and theatre-making drawn from participants’ experiences of home cooking.
Ground Works invites reviewers, authors and other contributors to its accepted articles to submit short reflections on the work prepared. These commentaries are intended to amplify and enrich presentations of provocative work through dialog with the community.