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Report from Transcending Borders: The Intersections of Arts, Science, Technology, & Society on a Global Stage

Amanda McDonald Crowley (far left)  moderates the panel discussion Transcending Origins: An Artist/Scientist Cross-Discplinary Case Study with Dr. Andrew Baden and Liz Lerman as they share the experience of collaborating on The Matter of Origins, a multimedia performance exploring the beginnings of the universe. Photo courtesy of the Embassy of Austria.

In a 2002 TED Talk, astronaut Mae Jemison proclaimed that the arts and sciences are “avatars of human creativity.” Artists and scientists share a mutual search for new ideas and possibilities to build an understanding of the world; but they are increasingly doing so apart from the boundaries of their disciplines. The NEA partnered for the first time with the Salzburg Global Seminar on June 4 to present Transcending Borders: The Intersections of Arts, Science, Technology, and Society on a Global Stage, a seminar in the EU Rendez-Vous series hosted by the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC. The two-hour discussion was broken down into three panels featuring an artist-scientist team, three policy makers, and two curators of art, science, and technology institutions. The objective of Transcending Borders was to examine how the impact of creativity and cross-disciplinary collaboration is shaping today’s society and the future. Themes of the event included: long-term support; finding a balance between collaborations; contextualization and translation of projects at this intersection; industry partnerships; and the role of policy makers in funding experimental research.

The evening began with introductions from Ambassador of Austria to the United States Hans Peter Manz, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, and Salzburg Global Seminar President and CEO Stephen Salyer. As an independent branch within the Embassy, the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington presents Austrian and European related events that emphasize innovative artistic and scientific achievements. Ambassador Manz opened by expressing interest in the event’s outcome, as the topic is “truly philosophical,” and asking what the next frontiers in creative inquiry might be. With this sentiment, Landesman remarked, “The NEA is at our best when we operate as a responsive funder---one that stays in close touch with the arts community across the country and watches for the opportunities, challenges, and patterns that emerge.” Next, Salyer talked briefly about the work of the Salzburg Global Seminar, which brings together thought-leaders from around the globe to seek common ground via a fellowship program. Salyer then welcomed moderator Amanda McDonald Crowley, an independent cultural worker and former executive director of Eyebeam, and the first round of panelists to the stage for Transcending Origins: An Artist/Scientist Cross-Disciplinary Case Study.

The first panel highlighted the partnership of choreographer and MacArthur Fellow Liz Lerman and Dr. Andrew Baden, a physicist and department chair of Physics at University of Maryland, College Park. Lerman and Baden began collaborating together for an interdisciplinary performance piece, The Matter of Origins, exploring physics and beginnings. Baden explained the connection between art and science by saying, “We both are trying to get to the truth.” He added, “There’s a difference between what’s true and what you can prove. And you have to keep trying, but ultimately you need what both scientists and artists have, which is creativity.” Baden and Lerman agreed that both disciplines will play an important role in the future of our understanding of what it means to be human. Lerman continued by showing video clips, one from her visit to the Geneva-based particle laboratory CERN and another demonstrating a dance of a particle trying to break through a wall. At the end, she pointed out an interesting area in the borderland between art and science---education---which has enormous potential to embody the nature of knowledge.

On the policy level, NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa initiated the next panel by sharing three examples of recently funded art and science projects from the NEA. “The NEA’s arts discipline directors routinely see projects that traverse the art/science bridge,” said Shigekawa. An example is the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, New York, which received an NEA grant of $35,000 to foster interdisciplinary creative practice through their artist-in-residence program. Shigekawa indicated that the NEA is interested in encouraging grant applications from more collaborative art-and-science projects across all NEA disciplines. Crowley also added in between speakers that these kinds of interdisciplinary collaborations are an important part of the knowledge-making process.

Next to present for “Transcending Policy” was Soo-Siang Lim, Director of National Science Foundation's Science of Learning Centers program, who affirmed that the agency invites support from research projects that combine art, science, and technology for new approaches to conceptualize and communicate science, especially through arts-based learning. An example of a recently funded NSF project is Nina Krause’s work at Northwestern University that studies the effects of music on the brain and nervous system and has significant implications on education and health. Lim commented, “Today’s event is actually a very important one for allowing all of us with our diverse interests to get together to come to some [conclusions] about where we might see some fruitful collaborations.”

The second panel ended with Clare Shine, Vice President and Chief Program Officer of Salzburg Global Seminar who discussed the organization’s mission and programming stating, “…crossing boundaries is in our organizational DNA.” But what started in 1947 with crossing geopolitical boundaries became, in recent years, an exploration of how culture, art, and science come together for positive social change. Shine gave several examples of institutional programming ranging from what it means to be human as we interact and use new technologies to how artists respond to global changes such as invasive alien species. Shine said, “The challenge now from a policy perspective is how we break out of silos and how we take risks in trying to listen to those with whom we haven’t necessarily been co-educated.” Crowley agreed that overcoming “silo knowledge” is of critical importance today---bridging divides and “understanding one another with participatory knowledge building.”

The third and final panel Transcending Limitations covered the perspectives of two curators. Manuela Naveau, Director of Ars Electronica Export in Linz, Austria, gave a presentation on her organization, which was established in 1979 as a groundbreaking festival of computer art that developed as a result of Linz’s growing technology industry. Thirty-three years of festivals have included topics such as Code: The Language of Our Time (2003), Hybrid: Living in Paradox (2005), and The Big Picture (2012). In 1987, the Prix Ars Electronica competition was created, which Naveau says has the largest amount of American artists in its database. Then in 1996, the center opened to house Ars Electronica programs and translate projects from multidisciplinary creators to the local community. The institution presents topics and research through a variety of hands-on labs each for different purposes to engage audiences in participatory learning. Naveau observes, “Interdisciplinarity needs translation.” Thus, Ars Electronica is opening an archive of more than 120,000 entries of media art that they have documented to provide as a resource for artists and scientists in contextualizing work at this intersection. She ended: “It’s also our job as a curator to keep these projects vivid and alive.”

Finally, Joel Slayton, Executive Director of ZERO1 in San Jose, California, wrapped up the panel with an overview of his organization. Slayton began by saying, “Making knowledge, and having knowledge, and sharing knowledge are not the same thing.” In today’s complex global society, there is an enormous demand for meaning making---whether it’s personal, cultural, or discipline specific---and understanding us as a society. “Almost always meaning emerges from conversation, from dialogue, from interaction,” said Slayton. ZERO1 is not simply another cultural institution but a network of people and organizations that, like Ars Electronic, originated from Silicon Valley in 1995 as a biennial. There is now a 10,000 square-foot ZERO1 Garage operating in tandem as a think tank, exhibition space, and open platform for creation and collaboration. This fall, ZERO1 will introduce a new fellowship program at the Seeking Silicon Valley festival where over 100 artists are scheduled to debut newly commissioned works including Jer Thorp and Mark Hansen as well as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The organization is also collaborating with industry partners, specifically Google and Adobe.

Crowley concluded the session by asking panelists their thoughts on how organizations can facilitate collaborations between art, science, and technology so that interdisciplinary practices strengthen over time. Slayton suggested that organizations act as brokers to provide opportunities and manage relationships between artist and scientist collaborators. The overall consensus of the panelists is that developing this intersection is going to take time, patience, and sustained global networking and support.

Visit arts.gov to view an archive of the full Transcending Borders presentation.

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