11 May 2006

Strong and Weak Interdisciplinarianism



Saws, 2005, photo courtesy Joel Murphy's website. See, the reciprocating saws inside the granny carts talk electrically to the chainsaws mounted on the wall... check out video of it working to see what I mean.

Joel and I were talking the other night about his work, and he said some things about working between disciplines that made me rethink the conversation about interdisciplinary work (specifically Oda Projesi) that is happening over on Leisurearts. So let me tangentialize the discussion even further away from Claire Bishop and Grant Kester, and just talk about interdisciplinary approaches to artmaking.

Lately Joel has been inspired by NASA's Centennial Challenge problem-solving contests, in which you design something for space. The chances of him singlehandedly designing something that works in space are slim, because he's not an engineer. But his goal is not to make something that goes into space. His goal is to make a sculpture that is informed by this problem-solving process. Because he is not an engineer and the thing doesn't actually have to go to Mars, he can fall in love with representing specific parts of the process. More importantly, because he is making art and not space stuff, he can pry specific aspects of the problem-solving process off their utilitarian moorings. He can do whatever he wants with them: fetishize, absurdize, romanticize. You can't do that when the shit has actually got to get to Mars.

What's interesting about Joel is that he is not looking at interdisciplinary work in terms of boundarylessness. Rather, he is leveraging one boundary against another for maximum creative effect.

This kind of interdisciplinary work--which actively uses the notion of discrete disciplines and leverages one against another--strikes me as more interesting and useful than the kind of interdisciplinary work that relies upon the absence of boundaries between disciplines. Shane Hope is more interesting than Eduardo Kac. Eleanor Antin is more interesting than Tamy Ben-Tor. Biospheria is more interesting than Oda Projesi.

Oda Projesi is doing art education and applied sociology and calling it art because it can. Steve Ausbury and Anthony Burr, on the other hand, used the rigor and logic of opera to transform the UCSD campus and leveraged a whole community of volunteers who were expected to do rigorous things, like attend rehearsal and be in the right place at the right time and learn dance steps. This was not declaring UCSD's campus life "art" by intellectual fiat. Every volunteer actor and dancer and technician (including myself) was there to assist in creating this transformation, and we understood that our role was crucial because the scale and the desired effect was so large.

Boundarylessness is flaccid. It wastes what artists are good at and makes that Duchampian gesture of declaring it art into a tired cliche. Because these boundaries are concepts, they can come and go as we please. Just because we, the art people, have been wandering through a relatavist wasteland doesn't mean that we can't pick up these boundary-tools and describe real relationships between intellectual disciplines. And just because we think the boundaries are irreversably eroded doesn't mean any other discipline thinks with this kind of finality. Designers, welders, riggers and doctors still embrace the specific skills they learned and practice daily, and still admit that this skill-set and daily practice filters and colors the way they see and think.

Strong interdisciplinary work pushes disciplines against one another. Work that defines itself in terms of an absence of discrete disciplines is not only not strong, it's not even interdisciplinary. And I am genuinely curious about what use that absence serves.

4 Comments:

Blogger DilettanteVentures said...

How about throwing this in the mix?

"It is important to briefly explain the differences between transdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, with mutual exchange of ideas and corrections. Whereas ‘multidisciplinary’ means only that various disciplines
work alongside each other on one issue, interdisciplinarity implies the exchange of concepts and methods, which are incorporated into the various complementary disciplines.
Transdisciplinarity is a new approach to research and science which defines and solves problems more independently of specific disciplines,thus transforming disciplines and subjects by removing their traditional borders wherever a single disciplinary definition of an issue is not possible or useful."

That's from an essay by Florian Waldvogel. It looks like what you derisively call "weak" interdisciplinary work is what he is calling (favorably) transdisciplinary.

11 May, 2006 22:59  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Okay, I buy the definition. But what specifically does it do? When, exactly, is it not useful or possible to use a discipline, or more than one in combination?

I am not saying that it is never a good idea to work in a transdisciplinary fashion. What I am saying is that this kind of leveling is so prone to abuse and ineffective (weak) use. Oda Projesi is an excellent example of this. What they are doing is valuable and fun, but it's not art. It's not art because it's already something else--there are thousands of nonprofits doing exactly what Oda Projesi is doing and getting grants and getting written about and making change. So Oda Projesi calls itself art. Big whoop. What does that do, except sever Oda Projesi from a larger conversation about arts education and community outreach? A conversation that is alive and thriving and could use Oda Projesi's input?

My problem is that a lot of artists are out there re-inventing the wheel, making research into art, making community outreach into art, and what for? Usually this "art" approach is just a lame version of the real-world version. (Sorry, right now the only examples I can think of are examples I really can't mention. I will come up with examples that won't get me in political trouble soon)

In this context, not only is a disciplinary definition possible, it is useful for others doing exactly what the artist is doing. Tamy Ben-Tor is doing a one-woman show in a pretty straightforward way. I would love it if she innovated out of the discipline of theater, but she doesn't. Rather, she uses the art gallery context as a way to lower the bar, and that pisses me off. If Ben-Tor was working in a theater context, she would be forced to work on the clunkiness of her presentation, especially her transitions, which depend on an extremely generous audience.

My question is what do we get in exchange for this leveling besides a lowering of standards? Because I truly love innovation, but I hate seeing artists playing dress-up.

12 May, 2006 11:52  
Anonymous onesock said...

I am really impressed with Joel's work. Thanks for the link and a new artist discovery for me!

12 May, 2006 13:43  
Anonymous joel said...

it sounds like transdisciplinarity [mushmouth of a word] is a re-dressing of cybernetics, in which case it's not new at all, though the idea of 'removing traditional borders' is not a goal or method of cybernetics. rather, work that happens in the margins between disciplines is taken back and forth across the defining walls, informing and advancing established practice in ways that lonely disciplines could never achieve. the weakness of transdiscipliarity is that it destroys the ground or wall that it sits on or can be bounced up against, and so its products would ideally live in a mist of atomized discipline memes. the products of this new approach can easily be dismissed as 'snake oil' by the establishment [which continues to exist no matter how long Waldovogel holds his breath].
it appears that FW et al are employing the tools of transdisciplinarity in their catalog to 'just do it...' Inke Arns puts the CatalogCrime (can't resist a NYPost like headline) in perspective here http://waldvogel.plaintext.cc/.
transdiciplinarity will not be respectable as long as it exists in an ethical vacuum. it's more like an intellectual con game.
good fences make good neighbors.

great blog, deb. it's nice to chew on a meaty topic!

14 May, 2006 11:43  

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