Photo: Hanabusa Itchō
Within this short statement, I would like to make three propositions for inter-, cross-, and transdisciplinarity(1) and present a possible path to creating new methods that can be attributed to artistic research as an inherently interdisciplinary and method-developing field, as it is the hybrid of art and research, drawing from both worlds. After Polish theorist Jerzy Ludwiński, artistic research is ‘the dialogue that art has with other spheres of civilization’. Thus, artistic research is not an academic discipline only but an ongoing dialogue and a platform for encounters between disciplines and people from different walks of life.
As of today, and in many contexts, inter-, cross-, and transdisciplinarity have become indispensable to address and tackle today’s complex challenges. Their interweaving discourses are evolving by the minute, creating new formats, disciplines and dialogue. From the viewpoint of my artistic research on dizziness, I would claim that cross-disciplinarity feeds from complexity and flourishes through a welcoming, enduring and working through states of uncertainty.
However, this may open up resistance and criticism of cross-disciplinarity as being vague or driven by misunderstanding. When it comes to a critique of cross-disciplinarity, the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant is a popular go-to, and some of you may know versions of it. One of the earliest records of this parable seems to date back to the Buddhist scriptures of Udana around 500 BCE. Even though, through the centuries, many different versions from Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain writings, but also in Western literature have evolved, I have chosen a short one for today, and a slightly more recent one, available online, by the American author James Baldwin:
There were once six blind men who stood by the roadside every day, and begged from the people who passed. They had often heard of elephants, but they had never seen one; for, being blind, how could they?
It so happened one morning that an elephant was driven down the road where they stood. When they were told that the great beast was before them, they asked the driver to let him stop so that they might see him.
Of course they could not see him with their eyes; but they thought that by touching him they could learn just what kind of animal he was.
The first one happened to put his hand on the elephant’s side. “Well, well!” he said, “now I know all about this beast. He is exactly like a wall.”
The second felt only of the elephant’s tusk. “My brother,” he said, “you are mistaken. He is not at all like a wall. He is round and smooth and sharp. He is more like a spear than anything else.”
The third happened to take hold of the elephant’s trunk. “Both of you are wrong,” he said. “Anybody who knows anything can see that this elephant is like a snake.”
The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant’s legs. “Oh, how blind you are!” he said. “It is very plain to me that he is round and tall like a tree.”
The fifth was a very tall man, and he chanced to take hold of the elephant’s ear. “The blindest man ought to know that this beast is not like any of the things that you name,” he said. “He is exactly like a huge fan.”
The sixth was very blind indeed, and it was some time before he could find the elephant at all. At last he seized the animal’s tail. “O foolish fellows!” he cried. “You surely have lost your senses. This elephant is not like a wall, or a spear, or a snake, or a tree; neither is he like a fan. But any man with a particle of sense can see that he is exactly like a rope.”
Then the elephant moved on, and the six blind men sat by the roadside all day, and quarrelled about him. Each believed that he knew just how the animal looked; and each called the others hard names because they did not agree with him. People who have eyes sometimes act as foolishly. (2)
Apart from the inherent ableism, also visible in the Chinese illustration, this tale allows for interesting readings of approaches to knowledge generation.
Following one interpretation of this parable, cross-disciplinarity cannot be achieved because each of the blind men takes their own understanding as absolute, and they do not connect to each other’s experience and understanding. Cross-disciplinarity, however, starts with listening to and acknowledging different viewpoints and manners of experiencing and relating to each other within a common purpose, interest, or topic. The production of knowledge starts with acknowledging uncertainty and the lack of knowledge. This is my first proposition: to listen to each other in an open and welcoming manner, even if we cannot understand each other’s experience or viewpoint right away. Contrary to the attitude of the blind men in this story, and coming from artistic research, we believe that the start of interdisciplinarity is the start of acknowledging the borders of our own knowledge. This is my second proposition: realizing and actualizing the borders of one’s own field, knowledge, and/or methods.
Questions of method are always and foremost connected with questions of knowledge and non-knowledge, but also with questions of what can be said, communicated and described, as well as what stays un-said, un-communicated or un-described because we deem it insignificant, it remains unnoticed, or simply because we have neither language nor images (thinking of photo-, carto-, or historiographies, i.a.) nor other ways to express it, as yet.
Moreover, a method is related to both creating a practice to access new knowledge and creating a vessel for the gained knowledge to be presented, known, and understood. So, the finding of a method and the advancement of artistic and/or scientific work are, of course, intrinsically intertwined, intra-acting, with philosopher and physicist Karen Barad, as in the continuous process of establishing each other.
But how do we go about finding and teaching methods of cross-disciplinarity? A necessary step, it seems to me, is creating and fostering an atmosphere where the absolutist and authoritarian idea of knowledge as something fixed, in opposition to knowledge as a fluid and processual matter, is criticized. The very notion of knowledge needs to be questioned, as we might say, coming from blue-sky research and artistic research. So, it may be worthwhile to recognize that knowledge is not simply knowledge, and meaning is not merely meaning but suggests slightly different things to each and all of us and our respective fields.
Besides, as many epistemological connotations of “knowledge” as many different methods to gain knowledge exist; they are usually used in an interweaving and complementary manner. Thus:
Knowledge may be produced by contemplation, by calculations, by inductive or deductive reasoning, by probability or risk determination, through logical analysis, through comparison, through interpretation of ways of thinking or acting, as well as by the interpretations of facts or artefacts in terms of meaning, aesthetics, and genealogy, to name a few examples.
This is to show that the way towards knowledge is through acting in a certain way, and the emerging knowledge, then, will be interpreted and spread from a particular viewpoint to a specific field.
After the first proposition, listening to each other, and the second, acknowledging the borders of our own knowledge, I would like to come back to the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant. What I do by using this story, and my third proposition in terms of a method for cross-disciplinarity is utilizing a different language-space, a language-space that is home neither to me, as a visual artist, nor to any of the colleges with whom I would like to start a cross-disciplinary process. Using a slightly different language from our everyday working language, I can create an atmosphere where ideas and inputs can be taken up differently from our habitual and learnt patterns. In our project’s cooperation with creativity research, for example, we have started our collective process with phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings, as an ‘outside’ from the defined borders of our respective fields, but still precisely on topic, with taking a text on uncertainty and dizziness in the creative process as our common ground. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and No-Sense)
Cross-disciplinarity, then, means leaving the safe space of the discipline one feels at home, and entering a different space, a space of uncertainty.
In this context, I would like to emphasize the generative space of art as localized and emplaced. The discipline of art offers spaces for experiencing, exploring and thinking, for understanding and questioning aimed at diverse audiences, thinking of the exhibition space, the concert hall or the cinema space, for instance. Art provides areas in which one is exposed to uncertainty, both alone and collectively as an audience. These spaces can be read vehicles of movement, designed to move us to different viewpoints, times, geographical spaces, or even into the realm of fantasy, allowing us to enter different encounters, viewpoints, meanings and ways of knowing. For this process to be generative, one needs to allow oneself to get lost in the processes for a while to access this new or different kind of knowledge.
Alienation from one’s own field can be emphasized as a method of itself, applied in art and philosophy, for example, but also as a method for a cross-disciplinary approach. Meeting the other partner/discipline halfway on uncertain ground softens the hierarchies inscribed in the cooperation and the knowledge they produce, as well as becoming open for the falling away of habits such as taxonomies, which brings with it the advantage of questioning or explaining one’s own point of view from a different angle, as an added layer for reflection, if you will; linear and hierarchical thinking being one of the main obstacles to interdisciplinary exchange and dialogue that must be had on an equal footing.
The purpose of cross-disciplinary work does not need to be collective in the sense of being the same; it cannot be. Thus, interdisciplinary project design must include the involved disciplines’ needs and desired goals. In my experience, the design must allow all partners to pursue their own goals as purposefully as possible within a cross-disciplinary project. As illustrated in the parable, however, one needs to make connections to the fields of the others involved, and one needs to be as precise as possible about the borders and blind spots of one’s own field and methods. Nevertheless, even when uncertain, we can still aim to be as precise as possible in order to follow our collective or shared or overlapping purposes.
After these three propositions, allow me to add a possible path to the development of methods that stems from our project’s exchange with creativity research around the emergence of innovation. The question of method cannot be considered without thinking of what kind of knowledge gain is intended, to uncover what kind or form of knowing is needed, a learning process toward a method can be put in place, in a process that is linked to the generation of new ideas, and this starts with two complementary movements:
Finally, as illustrated in the parable and drawing from personal experience, I would like to mention a factor that can become problematic in interdisciplinarity. Sometimes people identify with their method, even strongly so; therefore, a critique of their method, and be it only in proposing a slight adaptation or a slightly different approach, may be confused with criticizing them. Indeed, methods are sometimes also a personal matter and/or a question of hierarchy. Nevertheless, recognizing one’s own limits, being as mindful and accurate as possible about the blind spots of one’s own field and methods allows us to connect in a collective and individual learning process that needs an agile, adaptive and flexible approach. Interdisciplinary innovation is a phased cycle: a continuous process of stabilization and destabilization (cf. Harald Katzmair, Instigate Unbalance). Even in a state of uncertainty, we can still aim to be as precise as possible in order to follow our collective, shared or overlapping interdisciplinary research purpose. Because in the end, adapting or creating a method is a process of learning.
(1) We understand cross-disciplinarity to be the umbrella term for different disciplines’ interaction. Interdisciplinarity means working together on a topic of common interest, but not necessarily on a common outcome. Transdisciplinarity means working toward a common outcome, such as formulating, conducting and interpreting a study together or co-creating an artwork. Both inter- and transdisciplinarity offer chances to exchange and learn from each other’s methods and to reflect on one’s own methods.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and No-Sense, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992.
Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, New York: Arkana, 1964.