In 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released its list of ten Big Ideas, a daring set of mission-driven initiatives for future research that the agency would seek to fund over the next decade. Among them was growing convergence research, described as follows:
The grand challenges of today — protecting human health; understanding the food, energy, water nexus; exploring the universe at all scales — will not be solved by one discipline alone. They require convergence: the merging of ideas, approaches and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge to stimulate innovation and discovery. (https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/big_ideas/convergent.jsp)
As a powerful federal funding agency for research, this emphasis is an important hallmark for the state of research that explicitly seeks to identify, build, and fund inquiry in line with the wicked problems (sidenote: “Wicked problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973) are challenges that are especially dynamic due to their fluctuating parameters and require diverse strategies of engagement for generating inquiry. ↩ ) of our day through the opportunities of collaborative and integrative forms of research practice. While the NSF is situated in the US, other initiatives in international settings suggest that collaborative forms of research practice, or rather the recognition of their importance, is on the rise. Consider the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, which provides the framework for the seventeen Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs present a dramatic scope of entangled challenges deemed necessary for navigating our future; it intentionally opens the fundamental issues of sustainability well beyond the climate crisis. The 2030 Agenda recognizes
that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. (https://sdgs.un.org/goals)
The dramatic sweep of challenges that the SDGs present are daunting, but their urgency only intensifies in light of the ever-narrowing window we have to meet them.Institutions of higher education are compelled to act, and within this reaction there is widening consensus that disciplines in the arts and design have important contributions to make. Organizations like Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) highlight a growing trend in higher education that the arts not only play a vital role to campus culture but to research and teaching as well. Whether it be an increasing emphasis on the fluidity of knowledge and inquiry through interdisciplinary curricula (sidenote: Initiatives in interdisciplinary curricula take many forms but some of the more prominent within the last decade would be the arts integration with science and engineering such as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math); SEAD (science, engineering, art and design) and the maker education movement. ↩ ) or elevating the role the arts and education can play in some of our most vital areas of healthcare and medicine, creative practice is getting a lot of attention from broader communities of research.
Yet, while all of this discourse gushes on the impact of the arts, there is much to be learned about how to cultivate fertile ground for this work so that it is nimble and responsive in a fast-changing world. The status and cohesiveness of individual disciplines shape this conversation, allowing for a proliferation of terms such as multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity.
Multidisciplinarity is to view a central issue or inquiry from multiple disciplines that add multiple perspectives but remain focused on a disciplinary investigation. Interdisciplinarity refers to research that goes on between disciplines, sharing degrees of epistemology and application, and in some cases generating new disciplines. Transdisciplinarity “concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline” (Nicolescu, 1997, p. 2).
Although there are differences in how these terms are formulated, a common thread for transdisciplinary modes of learning addresses two characteristics: transdisciplinarity 1) is an a priori positioning of knowledge as interconnected, complex, and transcending total categorization, and 2) is compelled by the need to address complex problems. Transdisciplinarity may suggest disciplines that have yet to be defined, but ultimately the speculative nature of such an endeavor frustrates the systems by which research gets done (and is funded). It begs the question: 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. “Ecology,” in this sense, focuses on the relationships that bind component parts into ecosystems and may be used to understand a wide array of social and cultural production. Thinking ecologically provides a systematic view while also attending to the material agencies, institutional architectures, and human interrelationships that cultivate deep disciplinary integration. Vibrancy alludes to our collective impact, fomenting an ethics of research and practice that is cognizant of the socio-cultural dimensions of knowledge systems in a great time of uncertainty. Vibrant ecologies of research call attention to the complex and nuanced articulations of how institutions, research groups, and organizations come together and what elements allow them to thrive.
The Vibrant Ecologies of Research collection is composed of five peer-reviewed projects and three invited commentaries. Project work provides a broad view of entangled, arts-integrated practice. When taken as a whole, themes across the project work include polydisciplinary practices and articulations of collaboration that are dynamic and fluid; issues of sustainability; boundary work that these teams engage in while navigating different audiences within and outside of the academy; and site-specific catalysts of research practice (see Figure 1). My usage of the term polydisciplinarity reflects the ways that these projects dynamically inhabit multiple states of multi-, inter-, and trans- spaces of disciplinary practice. The emphasis here is that integrating disciplines is not static, but rather a performance dependent on those involved and the context within which the work is engaged.
These themes emerge and manifest in different ways across the project work. Lauren Stetz, Karen Keifer-Boyd, Michele Mekel’s “Just-in-time Ecology of Interdisciplinarity: Working with Viral Imaginations in Pandemic Times” showcases an open archive for artistic practice that came together during the pandemic, activating polydisciplinary fluidity through funding, faculty, and workshop activities from an array of disciplines. Issues of sustainability are central motivators to Eric Benson’s “Fresh Press Agri-Fiber Paper Lab,” a model of fiber research and boutique paper craft that relies on locally sourced agri-fiber, and Mary Beth Leigh and Lissy Goralnik’s “In a Time of Change: A Nested Ecosystem of Environmental Arts, Humanities, and Science Collaboration,” which brings artists and environmental scientists to the front lines of climate change in Alaska. Many of the projects showcase boundary work: a term that extends Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer’s (1989) concept of the boundary object to highlight the role of outward facing events as manifestations of deep collaboration. Jamie Hand’s “Translating Outcomes: Reflections on ArtPlace America’s Cross Sector Research,” a ten year review of the broad policy implications of ArtPlace America, offers many examples of boundary work, but all of the projects variously incorporate exhibitions, workshops, archives, and publications as boundary work. And finally, the activation of site through framing place-based learning and inquiry drives many of the projects, most notably Genevieve G. Tremblay, Jeff Brice, Fernanda X. Oyarzún Dunlop, Nélida Pohl, and Belén Gallardo’s “ASKXXI: Ecologies of Interdisciplinary Research and Practice in Art + Science and Technology,” an interhemispheric collaboration between sister ecologies in Chile and the northwest United States. Importantly, no one project can be captured within one of these frames; rather, these vibrant ecologies activate these themes in different relational bursts that ebb and flow as the project work unfolds.In addition to the five peer-reviewed projects, three invited commentaries are included in the collection as statements that convey dialogue, present emerging work, and voice supportive perspectives from allied scholars. In “Becoming Desirably Strange: A Dialogue between Aaron Knochel and Roger Malina,” I engage physicist, astronomer and Executive Editor of Leonardo publications Roger Malina in a conversation concerning the themes of the collection and some of Malina’s work looking at the intersections of art and science collaboration. The published dialogue is a result of a transcribed conversation between Malina and me, hosted through a video conference platform, that was then edited for readability and to clarify ideas through citation as needed. In “Ecologies of Transdisciplinary Research,” scholars of economics, business, and sustainability Paul Shrivastava, Laszlo Zsolnai, David Wasieleski, and Philippe Mairesse share insights from their experiences in the TransGenerative 2030 initiative and their collective work launching the UNESCO Chair on Integrating the Arts and Science for Implementing Sustainable Development Goals at the ICN Business School in Nancy, France. And finally, Lindsey D. Felt and Vanessa Chang’s “Cripping Media Art Ecologies” introduces the new Leonardo CripTech Incubator project which refashions the creative design cycle through an accessibility and disability justice lens. Each of these commentaries is meant to extend the conversation of vibrant ecologies, adding nuance and giving voice to important collaborators that have endeavored to create this work.
The Vibrant Ecologies of Research collection presents a unique range of voices for Ground Works. Hopefully, it builds upon the work that already distinguishes Ground Works as a publication of arts-integrated research, and it is our fervent desire that this may catalyze further explorations in kind. The world is full of unknowns, and the deep collaborations that are elevated here may be a vital resource for our ability to survive and thrive.
Nicolescu, Β. (1997). The transdisciplinary evolution of learning. In Proceedings of the International Congress on What University for Tomorrow? Towards a Transdisciplinary Evolution of the University, Locarno, 30 April-2 May 1997, 1-11. http://www.learndev.org/dl/nicolescu_f.pdf
Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.
Star, S. and Griesemer, J. (1989). Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), pp. 387-420.
“Wicked problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973) are challenges that are especially dynamic due to their fluctuating parameters and require diverse strategies of engagement for generating inquiry. ↩
Initiatives in interdisciplinary curricula take many forms but some of the more prominent within the last decade would be the arts integration with science and engineering such as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math); SEAD (science, engineering, art and design) and the maker education movement. ↩
Multidisciplinarity is to view a central issue or inquiry from multiple disciplines that add multiple perspectives but remain focused on a disciplinary investigation. Interdisciplinarity refers to research that goes on between disciplines, sharing degrees of epistemology and application, and in some cases generating new disciplines. Transdisciplinarity “concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline” (Nicolescu, 1997, p. 2). ↩