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Becoming Desirably Strange: A Dialogue between Aaron Knochel and Roger Malina

Invited commentary by Aaron D. Knochel and Roger Malina

Aaron D. Knochel
Photo of a light-skinned man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He wears a blue cap and a black jacket over a blue shirt.
Roger Malina
Photo of a smiling light-skinned man with dark hair and beard. He wears a sport coat over a blue plaid shirt

The following is a dialogue that developed over several months between guest editor Aaron Knochel and Leonardo Executive Editor Roger Malina regarding the special collection Vibrant Ecologies of Research. The writing started as a transcript from a live conversation which was then extended and annotated asynchronously.

Aaron Knochel:

We've had lots of conversations along the development of this special collection for Ground Works, and I’ve shared with you some of the submissions prior to publication to give you a sense of the Vibrant Ecologies of Research special collection. We have five submissions that have made it through the review process. We have a few commentaries, including this dialogic commentary piece that you and I are putting together, so that's very exciting. The projects range from a designer who's working in a university-based sustainable paper making shop and fiber research center to a reflective analysis of a decade-long research initiative focused on transforming American communities through creative placemaking. So, there's lots of diversity in the submissions.

One of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you is that you have a long history of taking part in important conversations concerning how to bring scholars from very different backgrounds together. Also, there's this very strong thread of thinking publication differently that's really questioning the boundaries of academic publishing. And, of course, you have a deep and rich history with Leonardo. In addition, you've been an involved member of the Ground Works community. Even before Ground Works existed, you were making contributions to conceptualizing this publication.

I thought we could take a look at some of the publications and projects where I’ve run across your work and some of the things that have influenced my thinking for the special collection and over the trajectory of my own career. I have a couple of works in mind that we can use as jumping off points.

A great place to start and jog your memory a bit is one my first encounters with your work pertinent to the Vibrant Ecologies of Research special collection. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011 (Award Abstract #1142510) (sidenote: Also see:
LaFayette, Carol, Thanassis Rikakis, Donna J. Cox, Gunalan Nadarajan, Carol Strohecker, Pamela Jennings, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Roger F. Malina, Sheldon Brown, and Alicia Gibb "SEAD: Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design" Leonardo Journal , v.46 , 2013 , p.194-198 10.1162/LEON_a_00518 )
, which is ten years old at this point. This NSF funding created the Network for Science, Engineering, Art and Design (NSEAD).

This, for me, was a really important initiative and publication. I finished my dissertation in 2011 and so that coincided with my emergence into the field. I started a job that year in my first higher education tenure-track position. It motivated me to think of my own practice in a more expansive sense and perceive that collaborators in the sciences and engineering fields might have equal interest in what I was doing. Up until that point, I really had only thought of myself being interested in what they were doing. That funding, it seems to me, was also a pretty early footprint for the NSF in terms of putting money behind understanding these kinds of collaborations. I wonder if you have any reflections on that initiative, at the ten-year mark of this project work?

Roger Malina:

Okay, fair enough. This connects us to transdisciplinary translation and my concept that some forms of “strangeness” are desirable in individuals, groups, and institutions. Strangeness can trigger long term improvements but often not. In physics, the concept of strangeness has a different meaning from a literary work, but for our purposes strangeness indicates a kind of hybrid thinking. (sidenote: For more on the concept of strangeness in physics, see Sutton (2020). )

Yes, strange people often have strong connections to other strange people and can create strong reactions. I think this is illuminating for the Leonardo art, science, and technology community of practice that I have been part of for my whole life. This began with the founding of the Leonardo Journal in 1968 by Frank Malina, when I was a teenager. Frank Malina, my father, was a rocket scientist, kinetic artist, international diplomat, and editor. I sometimes joke that I had a disturbed childhood because when I came home from primary school my father was often painting. I grew up thinking that it was normal for scientists and engineers to also be original art makers.

But this also gets into the imaginary of hybrid individuals. We live in a world where we ask young people, “Okay, what do you want to be when you grow up: a doctor or a lawyer?” etc. Well, some people are just innately hybrid. And when you get into the metaphor of vibrant ecologies, if you look at the world around us, most entities that survive are hybridized. Some of it took a million years, ten million years to hybridize, but hybridization can be a good survival strategy. Hybrid plants and animals often survive longer than the ones that are pure. Pure is not the desirable terminology in genetics or in intellectual concepts. In our research lab we also use the term of “amphibians” who can fly, walk, and swim. 

Aaron Knochel:   
Hybridity brings to my mind Bruno Latour’s (1991/1993) notion of nature-cultures that he raises in We Have Never Been Modern. Latour attempts to topple the opposition of nature and culture. According to Latour, the modernist’s divide of culture, the relations of humans, and nature, the relations of non-humans, is an opposition built on purification. Built within the scientific laboratory (biology, chemistry, physics) and the social sciences (sociology, anthropology), these epistemologies of modernism artificially divide human and non-human collectives while coexisting with a proliferation of hybrids. This inherent contradiction to the modern critical stance is the basis for Latour’s claim that we have never been modern, that this purity has never existed, therefore calling into question the modern subject. The division of nature and culture has never been outside of the proliferation of hybrids. Instead, we find ourselves confronting a proliferation of nature-cultures. 
Roger Malina:

I like to joke that Bruno is one of my best enemies. I have gone from doubting and ignoring his ideas, to paying close attention. One of his aphorisms recently is “we are not as numerous as we think,” referring to the fact that human life is a minority life form on the planet and we mis-focus often on survival of humans rather than adaptive ecologies. We need to be life centric, not human centric.

So, I think one thing is that the pandemic has been shaking up the bottle of ideas, like pandemics have sometimes done in the past.

I have a colleague who's a professor at Southern Methodist University, Nishiki Sugawara-Beda, who uses this analogy that you take a big bottle and put ant colonies in it and just let it sit there. You put in water and food occasionally and the ant colonies happily do things, but if you shake the bottle the ants start fighting. Some of the ants find their way out of the bottle, because the cork isn't in it anymore. I think the kinds of hybrid people that we're talking about are the ants that decide to leave the bottle. And, when the bottle stops shaking, it settles down and the ants stop fighting, but they don't settle down into the same shape of colonies anymore, because you've shaken it up. The ants that escape the bottle are hybrids who design a new more desirable bottle. I sometimes refer to this as the need to redesign human nature; this is doable.

Chris Lee, in our ArtSciLab, is leading a project called Constellation Mapper. Astronomers have agreed how to define stars and galaxies, most agree on the definition of planets. But constellations in the sky connect the dots differently and we now agree to disagree. In his case he is mapping concept clusters, like star clusters, in our communities of practice. In transdisciplinary work one finds out that the same idea, or words, can mean very different ideas in different disciplines, “strange” in physics and social behaviors for example. The bottle of human civilization is being shaken up; the hybrids are escaping and designing more desirable bottles, such as Ground Works.

Take your metaphor of the vibrant ecologies. My mother, Marjorie Duckworth, grew up in the north of England in a small village next to what's called a beck, or a small stream. As kids we loved to play in it, but there was part of it that was too deep and so there were stepping stones to get across the river. There were some stones that were slippery and some that weren't, and so my mother had to teach us to walk one stepping stone at a time and not slip into the water.

And I think I feel that's what's going on at the moment in the pandemic, you know, the government is doing one stepping stone at a time. But some of those stones turned out to be slippery in Texas, many refuse to wear masks and get vaccinated. But the hybrids are often also amphibians. 

Aaron Knochel: 

I’m kind of curious pursuing this idea of strange people, because the work that I employ myself in and really endeavor to do, that crosses these boundaries, is not so much in conflict with people but it's really in conflict with institutions. What's the capacity of institutions for strangeness? How might we create and sustain strange institutions? Hybrids rely on a special kind of intersection between people, but also institutional space and support through forms of funding or infrastructure. 

Roger Malina:

Now, let me just inject some exemplars, which is one of the things that came out of the NSEAD work. Scientists rarely use exemplars, it's not a rigorous method, but in the humanities, you know it denotes what a really good example is of what you're talking about, and what are the criteria for inclusion.

I can think of a couple of examples, right now. Leonardo is currently headquartered at Arizona State University (ASU) and somehow, they figured out how to create these institutes between the schools and departments, such as the Center for the Study of Futures. The ASU website states simply: “Academic silos no longer serve. At ASU, we have reshaped the very structure of the university, centering our academic units and research institutes around grand challenges.” (Arizona State University, n.d., para. 2). ASU has tried to reshape the core of the university, itself standard with deans and associate deans, to have these slightly strange institutes, often temporary, that connect to several of the schools or departments. So, there's an example of an organizational method where if you're too strange to be in a school, then you go to the Institute. And then, the Director of the Institute mediates between the deans on your teaching load and all that kind of stuff.

Another aspect of strange institutions is that they don’t need to exist very long to change the history of ideas. Examples are for instance the Bauhaus, but also Roy Ascott’s Planetary Collegium (Wikipedia, n.d.) where temporary PhD students could keep their jobs and get a PhD. Roy put together a small network of institutions in different countries.  

Aaron Knochel:  

My own institution, Penn State, has a similar model. Most notably the Art & Design Research Incubator, Rock Ethics Institute, Social Science Research Institute and the Huck Institute of the Life Sciences. Although, most of these are not degree granting; they function more as research hubs and have a history of crossing disciplinary boundaries. 

Roger Malina:

The other example I’d like to mention, I was just in Paris for a few weeks over the break and I'm working with an individual, who you should get to know: his name is Emmanuel Mahé. When I met him, he worked in a private French company in China where he started an artist-in-residence program to figure out new uses of emerging technologies such as cell phones. He now works at the French design school École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (ENSAD) as Director of Research. They set up the SACRe program that couples the school of design with a polytechnic university and with a regular university, and so a student could add advisors from three universities. And if you're doing an artscience project, the school of art and design didn't have any scientists they could put on your committee if your project involves science, so then you went to the scientific university. And that program is now, I think, to have maybe 50 PhD students since 2016. (sidenote: For more information about the completed PhD from the SACRe program, see https://sacre.psl.eu/docteurs/ ) For me, it is an example of a “strange institution” that may not survive but whose PhD graduates may change the human history of ideas.

You have to be strange to successfully bridge funding structures. Joan Shigekawa, when she was at the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), tried in vain to get the NEA, the US National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities to collaborate. We failed; one stupid reason was a rule that Principal Investigators at the NSF had to have a PhD, and in those days a PhD in Art and Design didn’t exist. She had succeeded at the Rockefeller Foundation, in part because foundations sometimes have more fluid structures. The Rockefeller Foundation funding Leonardo, thanks to Joan, was crucial to re-inventing the organization, so it still survives. Leonardo no longer promotes the same creative work that it did at its foundation. Hybrids move around from focus to focus. And sometimes funding organizations need to try strange things.

Many of these organizations function as “temporary autonomous zones” as advocated by Hakim Bey (1985). There is no worse organization than one whose primary criteria of success is its own survival, not the good ideas it spreads.

There's now a growing number of exemplars where they've been able to bridge institutions in a sustainable way while breaking the rules of each institution. And, you know, I think there's a growing number of those on the planet. I’ve never sat down and made a list.

Aaron Knochel

We see that model in variations in North America as well, although PhD-granting programs in art and design are rarer here than in Europe. In my own program in Art Education, our doctoral program has several dual title PhDs linking Art Education to areas of study such as African American and Diaspora Studies or Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Although, these are cross-college programs that do not stitch together bureaucratic complexities of multiple universities. 

Roger Malina:

a2ru started off as the “arts in research universities,” as if that was strange. They now work with dozens of universities that are struggling with a related problem, and so I think a2ru has done really important work for that.

Let me, then, just mention another thing that in retrospect, I can't believe the difficult task I got done. As a mid-career professional, I was elected to the International Academy of Astronautics. I have a lapel pin. I'm an Academician. But then I got very interested and wrote articles about the space arts, arts in space and I did a taxonomy of space art. I discovered these amazing artists and we got to have them elected as artists to the International Academy of Astronautics. One example includes Arthur Woods, who flew sculptures on the Russian Space Station. (sidenote: For information see https://www.arsastronautica.com/ ) More recently Kathryn Hays, Chris Kubli, and I (2020) extended this exploration of space arts in an article titled “Creativity and Cognition in Extreme Environments: The Space Arts as a Case Study.”

Ironically, the people in the International Academy of Astronautics that were very helpful on this were space lawyers, because forty years ago there was no such thing as a discipline of space law. If you wanted to work on space law, you were strange, and they set up an International Institute of Space Law and then lawyers got elected to the International Academy of Astronautics.

Aaron Knochel:

What sort of a rationale do you think would be compelling to these academies to widen their ranks? I mean, it’s interesting to make the case, especially in consideration of both a historical context versus a contemporary one. How would you pose a rationale to, say, the Academy of Sciences, that having artists achieve that kind of prestige and recognition in their organization would be beneficial to that organization and its mission?

Roger Malina:
Okay, so one of the things that came out of the NSEAD seed work, and I think it was the 2015 white paper publication “Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation: Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design” (Malina, Strohecker, & LaFayette, 2015), then graduate students Alex Garcia Topete and Veronica Liu did a project, and it's online still, showcasing sciences, engineering, arts, and design (SEAD) exemplars. (sidenote: To see the SEAD exemplars, visit https://seadexemplars.org/ ) Essentially, what are really good examples of art-science collaboration? That led to things that were really interesting to scientists and engineers, as well as the artists and composers. We put together a committee of people. We got nominations. We reviewed them, like Ground Works right now is kind of trying to publish strange articles. Well, let’s elect them to both Academies of Science and Academies of Art or better yet, reinvent the concept of an Academy or University in a world that must adapt rapidly to climate change. 
Aaron Knochel:
In my work with the authors that are a part of the special collection Vibrant Ecologies of Research, there definitely seems to be some identification with strangeness either by the weird twists and turns that their work takes via collaboration, or how they had become strange within their own disciplines due to the hybridization of their practice as it mutates within these transdisciplinary efforts. Examples that come to mind include designer Eric Benson’s work in “Fresh Press,” as his studio morphs into a fiber research laboratory, a sustainable farm, and artist residency. Or Lauren Stetz, Karen Keifer-Boyd, and Michele Mekel’s work through “Viral Imaginations” creating programming and funding assemblages that become a strange fit for the institution, but the right fit for pandemic times. Even Genevieve Tremblay and Jeff Brice’s work in “ASKXXI: Ecologies of Interdisciplinary Research and Practice in Art + Science and Technology,” whose program articulation was so strange as compared to institutional norms as to ultimately challenge their ability to sustain it outside of institutional supports and infrastructure that feed academic programs. 
Roger Malina:
It's a little bit like the list of action clusters and key practices from the “Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation: Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design” white paper which includes translating, convening, enabling, including, embedding, situating, sense making, documenting, learning, collaborating, and thriving (Malina, Strohecker, & LaFayette, 2015). This is what our ArtSciLab calls a “concept cluster.” Good ideas or concepts usually emerge in connected groups, blobs, or fuzzy taxonomies. Scott Gresham Lancaster, Sharath Chandra Ram and I (2019) developed a fuzzy taxonomy of data sonification. Laura Kim (2019) had not yet published her fundamental idea of blobology in Entering the Blobosphere: A Musing on Blobs. I like the concept of concept blobs, that are not just fuzzy but also gooey and evolve with time into different clusters. 
Aaron Knochel:
It’s funny, but it had not occurred to me how close in conceptualization are the notions of thriving from the NSEAD white paper and vibrancy which is used in the special collection. In the NSEAD white paper, thriving is one of the action clusters, and it highlights the intersection of ethics and well-being that allow SEAD projects to contribute to healthy and sustainable societies. Thriving acknowledges the interplay of epistemologies within SEAD research that foment deep collaboration and have the potential to impact a wide range of social issues, but also require sustenance. The report states: 
The arts, design, and humanities are important approaches that in themselves contribute to healthy, sustainable societies; their contributions to the interplay of “ways of knowing” require an acknowledgement that investment must be made in both the “SE” and “AD” segments of SEAD practice. (Malina et al., 2015, p. 56)

I conceptualized vibrancy to have this same implied balancing act that entangles ways of knowing and cultivates deep collaborations. The call for proposals for this special collection stated:

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. Thinking ecologically provides a systematic view while also attending to the material agencies, institutional architectures, and human interrelationships that nurture, foment, and/or cultivate deep disciplinary integration.

In retrospect, in addition to the driving metaphor of ecology, the NSEAD white paper still has much to offer, especially in the ways that thriving is aligned with the potential for arts-integrated research to impact social good. The NSEAD’s explicit focus on ethics and well-being within the action clusters are important considerations generally and in coming to understand the implications of the Vibrant Ecologies of Research special collection. 

Roger Malina:

The action clusters provide worthy pursuits for SEAD research. Most scientists don't produce new results. They confirm existing stuff, which is still important, and advance the state of the art by 1%. A few scientists do amazing things well. The same is true for science and art collaborations; not all art-science collaborations do amazing things but a few of them do and their results and practices take shape in ways that could not have been done any other way.

Another artist I’m thinking of is Rachel Mayeri. She came from the University of California San Diego to our artist-in-residence program that I was helping to run and wanted to work with primatologists. She made movies, where her intended audience for her art was nonhuman primates, such as monkeys.

So she discovered that monkeys paid attention to things humans didn’t notice. They were trans-species in their interest in watching TV. In her interactions with primatologists, the primatologists started asking themselves all kinds of questions of what kinds of things get the attention of orangutans? What kind of things get the attention of gorillas? Well, it's not the same things as humans or squirrels, but I think she led those primatologists to ask questions that turned out to be really fruitful in their work studying nonhuman primates. This is what transdisciplinarity is about, including trans-species thinking.

So, yeah, some people are just strange, but the way institutions impose the same rules and regulations on everybody means you exclude some of the most interesting research.

Robert Thill, a friend and colleague of mine at the New School in New York, was writing a book on patents filed by artists. He collected something like 8000 patents filed by artists (Thill, 2004). In their spare time, these artists invented something in their art studio and then they patented it. I don't think he ever finished the book, but artists sometimes invent things that are patentable. Yet, art schools rarely have a patent office to help them do that. Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse Code, was a landscape painter. Alexander Fleming, an artist, discovered penicillin. Robert Root-Bernstein and his co-authors have extensively documented how strange scientists who also have deep artistic avocations are more likely to get Nobel Prizes than narrowly focused scientists who work in their lab all weekend (Root-Bernstein et al., 2008). 

Aaron Knochel:

Well, there's always conversations about entrepreneurial aspects enabling artists to see their work in different dimensions of, say, business practice or patenting. In my estimation, this is one of the easier forms of boundary crossing that can be done within the academy, as it supports the priorities of economic impact that undergird all university missions.

Roger Malina:

The art school at SMU, just down the road from me in Dallas, has a very good program in arts management and arts entrepreneurship. (sidenote: For more information, see https://www.smu.edu/meadows/areasofstudy/artsmanagement ) The easy part is how do you set up a nonprofit if you have a studio. If you set it up right, you get huge tax deductions for doing your professional work, but that's a little bit of a different angle of attack than tying into the current obsession with innovation and creativity; much of the innovation results end in jobs that machines can do and then people are starving on the streets.

That's going to get me to something I want to mention. When I was in Europe, and I think our community of practice needs to pay attention to it too, I spent some time with a group representing a network of higher education institutions across Europe in an initiative called the New European Bauhaus. They just got approval for five years of funding through the European Green Deal for a new array of programming under this New European Bauhaus initiative (European Union, n.d.). First, they want to fund projects that are inherently sustainable and encourage a sustainable society. Second, they want to fund projects that by their nature are inclusive, not racist, not sexist, and not ageist. Finally, they also want projects that fund research on redefining beauty. Huh, artists no longer use that word beauty as a commercial commodity. The Bauhaus did if you go back and read it; they wanted to use new materials to make beautiful objects. You know, in the 1920s the emerging technologies were very different than now. But an innovative narrative on re-inventing beauty is in there.

You know, why does the fashion industry make people look beautiful in a certain way? How do you inspire the desire in people to use green materials?

Aaron Knochel:
I think for me that's what the Vibrant Ecologies special collection is pursuing, this idea of vibrancy is very much focused on what you're alluding to in that a great swath of art-science projects deal with various forms of translation or public engagement. Things of that nature are often derided as putting the art as a kind of window dressing to the core inquiry, whatever that may be, but really for me the idea of vibrancy gets to what you're talking about here. The manifestation of desire, finding nuance, or asking new kinds of questions are potentially the most transformative, or strange, to research practice. 
Roger Malina:

And, ironically, one of the things that happens in our lab, and part of it has to do with Cassini Nazir, is that we switched from talking about success criteria of a project, which I learned in my days at NASA, and wrote specifications of what are the desirable outcomes. And immediately then within this new framework we found out that everybody on the team doesn't have the same desires. For example, I'm not looking for a job. I've got a job, but my students’ desires are to get a better or good job. And that switch of vocabulary from success criteria to desirable outcomes, for me, has opened up areas of inquiry or nuances in our terminology.

Cassini is now developing methods to redesign curiosity, beginning with what toys should we design to kindle curiosity about how to build sustainable and inclusive human societies? We need a planet that’s sustainable and inclusive, so how do you redesign people's desires from the age of zero? Well, what toys do they play with? I had rockets as toys with water injectors as a boy and then I got a desire for rocketry because I had them–these toys that were rockets that you pump water into, and then they went out of the garden. Beginning with kids, how do you design people's desires? And certainly, sustainability and inclusivity are two of the fundamental things that we need after the pandemic. 

Aaron Knochel:

Do you see these issues of sustainability and inclusivity as catalyzing forces? These cross connections, in some ways, form important steps to an ecology of network knowledge. I’m thinking here in particular of the action clusters of the NSEAD white paper. It's interesting as well that there's an evolution from the kind of metaphor of a network in the 2011 NSF funded project that established NSEAD to this idea of an ecology that organizes this white paper in 2015, but I'm curious about how the wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) of racial justice and sustainability may catalyze ecological thought in relation to research culture. Thinking about our sustainability, the threat of climate change and the disasters that we're living through, but also the forceful resurgence of a civil rights movement, of a movement that tries to deeply recenter our focus on equality and equity. Do you think that these things have some sort of catalyzing effect on scholars and researchers’ desires to work with one another? 

Roger Malina:

Okay, so I was in Colombia, South America, where, you know it's coffee farming, mining, etc., and I have the sense of living inside the ecology.

Here in Dallas, I often don't. I know the box and then buildings. You don't intermingle with the natural world and the living world. You have freeways to go over the rivers. You don't have to walk a lot across the stepping stones. And, unfortunately, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, then published another report, where they use the tree of knowledge metaphor, and my joke is, we need to change the metaphors: cut down the tree of knowledge, we need a rhizome of knowledge.

Now, it's a bit complicated because in ecology, there are multiple structures that interconnect things, so “rhizome” maybe describes routes between plants that insects don’t follow. The branches of the tree don't talk to each other, which is why the tree of knowledge is not a very helpful metaphor, but in an ecology, there are all kinds of other interesting things like weather patterns. Instability is actually a good thing. The weather changes, then the ecology evolves as the weather, you know, there's winter and summer. Vibrant ecologies immediately get into different metaphors where we need rhizomatic knowledge where things are interconnected at the roots. We need weather patterns that change which plants grow quicker and which plants hibernate: animals too, obviously. Instability balances in an ecology. There are a number of processes that are interconnected that lead to some things going extinct and some things hybridizing; resilience and survivability can be enhanced. They become a different species. The winters got too cold, and the birds migrated a hundred miles north or a thousand miles north. Migration in an ecology is a very healthy thing. In our human concept, migrants are dangerous. They're illegal. They have to be controlled. In an ecology, migration is a fundamental way that the ecology survives.

I am currently researching topics on migration, e.g. gender and geographical migration as researched by Caroline Bretell (2016). Can we transfer her concepts to transdisciplinary migration?–I think so.

By switching to an ecological framework, it just forces us to step back and look at the way the metaphors we use shape the decisions we make. A tree of knowledge is not a good idea anymore. Although maybe we need a few, but not too many, long living trees or universities. 

Aaron Knochel:
This discussion of rhizomatic thought of course points to Continental philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s (1980/1987) A Thousand Plateaus. I'm excited to hear you talk about rhizomatic thought as this is common parlance that you'd run into in an art school or comparative literature department, but you know, to hear that you're talking about this as a former NASA scientist really intrigues me about the role of philosophy in science practice. 
Roger Malina:

One of things that I did in this preface I’ve been writing, in regard to our tolerance for strange people, was that I made the mistake in my first version of comparing the situation that we're living through, a pandemic and climate change at the same time, to World War III. My son, Xavier Malina, said that that's wrong. This is the second Hundred Years’ War. I had to go back and read my history. The French and the English fought for a hundred years trying to figure out who owns which part of England and France, and then there was a seven-year truce and then there was a mini ice age. What a wonderful analogy! We're in a hundred-year war against climate change and what we desperately need is a small ice age. Xavier was right: I use the analogy of World War III, but he said that war comes to an end. In the Hundred Years’ War, certain people spent their whole life in a war. If you died at fifty, you lived in a war and war was normal. Well, climate change is not going to get solved in five years, and so on, so I kind of liked the shift of metaphor to the hundred-year war that we're living through, and it changes, then, a little bit of our thinking. And now, which wasn’t the case when I discussed with Xavier a few weeks ago, we have the start of a real World War III that was perhaps triggered by a pandemic in Russia. 

You refer to catalyzing forces, and I would use incubate, accommodate, adapt. Those are not all very ecological terms, but maybe we could make them ecological.

Aaron Knochel:

I’d like to shift our conversation back to the list of publications that we started off with and focus some of our conversation on this latest publication. It’s a chapter in a collection Routledge Handbook of Art, Science, and Technology Studies, titled

“ArtSciLab: Experimental Publishing and Knowledge Production in Collaborative Transdisciplinary Practices” that you co-authored with Alex Garcia Topete, Chaz Lilly, and Cassini Nazir (Garcia Topete et al., 2021). You are a part of a multi-author team so I'm not sure of your involvement in the authoring of the article, but it deals with ArtSciLab and the experimental publishing space.

I saw one of your talks at a2ru, I think it was maybe 2018 or something like that, and you were talking about the ARTECA publishing platform that would be rescuing grey literature focused on art and technology. It was a very interesting discussion about all these types of publications that don't have an ongoing life, at least in a digital archive sense. I'm wondering if you want to say anything about this experimental publication space and what role it may play in hybridization or becoming strange and incubating, catalyzing vibrant ecologies. 

Roger Malina:

My seminar this semester is on experimental publishing and curating. Publishing is just a simple concept: how do you share knowledge that you develop with someone else; or note-taking is publishing for yourself. Curating is how do you make sure the better knowledge rises to the top of your attention and the less good knowledge sinks to the bottom. The trouble with peer reviewing, the standard of academic publishing, is that it is a yes/no system: either you're published or not published. John Ippolito, at the University of Maine, set up a system called The Pool where the good stuff rises to the top and the less good stuff sinks to the bottom. However, as time passes, say five years later, the stuff at the bottom of the pool could rise to the top as ideas shift. Now, how can you do peer reviewing with a non-yes/no system? Obviously, Ground Works is heavily invested in the problems of peer reviewing and how we rethink it. 

We don’t normally think of search engines as publishing mechanisms, but search engines give you the wrong answer if you ask the question in a way the AI doesn’t know how to interpret. I now encourage people to design the titles of their articles, even their names, to make them attractive to search engines, who are AI, not human, readers of our publications. They only care about a few keywords, no more than 32. My wife Christine Maxwell is a search engine pioneer, co-founder of Magellan. Her new search engine MOHO helps you re-state the question and helps you clarify the question before you search. Good luck with metaphor searches; a graduate of our lab, Omkar Ajnadkar, published an article on AI software to detect the level of sarcasm in a document.

On the publishing front, I'm working on my material for the semester, and I was thinking about the early days of the home computer and desktop publishing. I was at a workshop with Apple founder Steve Jobs in New York in the 1990s. One of his narratives–I may not be quoting him exactly–was “Do you know how long it took between the invention of print and the invention of the page number?” It was like eighty years. The first books had no page numbers, because a scroll doesn't need page numbers. You just keep rolling the scroll. Now the New York Times has invented scrolly-telling again with no page numbers when you read on a cell phone.

The platform we set up, thanks to MIT Press and University of Texas (UT) Dallas, was called ARTECA. We closed it down because the business model didn't work. The technology worked great.

But the whole question is really about what do we need to invent in digital publishing? Nobody knows how to publish digitally so that it's readable in 500 years. Leonardo books on paper will be available in libraries 500 years from now. Some of the libraries will burn down like the library of Alexandria, but you know we're in a hundred libraries and there's bound to be one library left when climate change has happened. Maybe there are some things that we should publish in book form.

Except unfortunately, MIT Press has a problem this week in that they can't get high quality acid free paper, because Amazon is buying all the paper to make cardboard boxes. And so, this is a supply chain problem: if you want to publish a book, you have to wait six months for the high quality paper. So 500 years from now when they write the history of publishing, they’ll say Leonardo stopped publishing books in 2022 because digital publishing was better. No, it was because they couldn't get the paper quickly enough to publish a book!

Aaron Knochel:
Along these lines of speculating on the future of academic publishing, I was just reading something this week in The Guardian about a post-theory science (Spinney, 2022). It’s this idea that theory essentially is dead, because there's no need to theorize ideas, only wield big data to assemble knowledge. But of course, the fallibility of the neural networks we use to negotiate these massive datasets has given plenty of reason to resist this post-theory future-present. Spinney also makes the point that we humans are not very good with black boxing discovery, as is the nature of computational relationship building. We don’t really know how it’s working. 
Roger Malina:

Right, okay, so that gets into Katherine Hayles, that we now do retrodiction, not prediction. (sidenote: For more on this argument, see https://leonardo.info/review/2019/03/review-of-the-formula-the-universal-laws-of-success ) Some scientists just collect data from the past, analyze it, and say, “Oh that's what's true.” You know, there's no climate change model that will predict anything. It predicts the past. The future may be like the past, but if a volcano goes out or an asteroid hits, it won't happen that way. And so, we have an absurd faith in scientific truths and every truth has error bars, or underlying uncertainties. Including our advocacy of the need for more hybrid professionals. 


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  1. Also see:
    LaFayette, Carol, Thanassis Rikakis, Donna J. Cox, Gunalan Nadarajan, Carol Strohecker, Pamela Jennings, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Roger F. Malina, Sheldon Brown, and Alicia Gibb "SEAD: Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design" Leonardo Journal , v.46 , 2013 , p.194-198 10.1162/LEON_a_00518
  2. For more on the concept of strangeness in physics, see Sutton (2020).
  3. For more information about the completed PhD from the SACRe program, see https://sacre.psl.eu/docteurs/
  4. To see the SEAD exemplars, visit https://seadexemplars.org/


Becoming Desirably Strange: A Dialogue between Aaron Knochel and Roger Malina © 2022 by Aaron D. Knochel and Roger Malina is licensed under CC-BY-NC 4.0

Publication Date:
August 4, 2022