From the President | Interdisciplinarity: opportunities across the divide

By Professor Clive Barstow

Interdisciplinarity and collaboration have always been an important aspect of knowledge creation, whether this be generated through a singular field of traditional research or by creative collaborative practices where new knowledge and insights are determined almost serendipitously through the open ended process of co-invention itself.

Christopher Frayling argues that creative research should aim to “generate new, hybridised methodologies of practice through the collaborative production of multiple disciplines” . So while the notion of gestalt is well understood and the fact that many contemporary arts practices now rely entirely on multi-disciplinary parts in the formation of the whole, it might be timely to acknowledge that this has probably always been the case in visual arts. Most early renaissance paintings for instance that have since been attributed to a single individual were of course panted by many artists and apprentices. The idea of the singular identified artist is a relatively new phenomenon and disguises the fact that much art produced throughout time has been a result of collaboration and interdisciplinary contributions between artists, scientists, alchemists, technicians, architects, religious leaders, designers and of course those important philanthropists. Through necessity, design has always worked across these and many other disciplines, so in this respect our heritage of working as interdisciplinary practitioners is both rich and deep.

In Europe, the separation of the arts and sciences in a teaching sense happened partly as a result of WW1 and because of the prolonged austerity that followed. Interestingly the rebuilding of interdisciplinary practices and the establishment of the art, design and technical colleges post WW2 was in part in acknowledgement of the growing understanding that the long term prosperity of societies in recovery was becoming increasingly dependent on the inventions and interactions between the pure and social sciences and the arts. As Baunes and Jentoft suggest, “Without knowledge from several academic disciplines, important problems in contemporary society cannot be solved” .

Fast forward to the present and as with all but the most prestigious academies and design schools in Europe and America, Australia has also evolved the model of the broad discipline multi campus University in which the physical separation of disciplines across buildings and campuses has resulted. Often these divisions have been created by hierarchy for purely administrative purposes, and often in conflict with the idea of interdisciplinary research and practice. It would be difficult to imagine now how an institution such as the Bauhaus could be proposed in Australia even within the disciplinary focus of art & design, and even though it is clear that our future life with AI will again, as in post WW2 Europe, be dependent on a single vision built around creative partnerships across the arts, health, science & technology and the humanities.

So as our silos become increasingly competitive, the arts and sciences have in many cases become polarised to a point where the arts are now in a vulnerable position unless they can prove their worth as financially independent, or through a convincing argument toward their direct and measurable contribution to social and cultural impact. While there are many excellent examples of interdisciplinary creative projects happening in our Universities, there is also the argument that without this, many artists, designers and musicians have no way of accessing major grants to support their practices and particularly in the field of NTRO’s. As Ross Woodrow points out, “The situation is currently no different to the twenty years prior to the introduction of the ERA in 2010 when researchers producing NTROs were specifically excluded by the ARC from grant applications – back to business as usual”

So as we evolve and adapt to our current situation, where does this leave interdisciplinarity within the current University system, and in the context of decreasing opportunities for funding? In some respects, the arts have always been the moral and social gatekeeper to contextualise pure research and to place it in our society. Arts/Science interdisciplinary “is portrayed as offering new ways of rendering science accountable to society and/or of forging closer relations between scientific research and innovation” but surely we are not here just to legitimize or illustrate scientific thinking that seems mute to its responsibility to communicate to its people. The debate clearly needs to be had about whether interdisciplinary research in the University ultimately protects or threatens our core business, if only to ensure that legitimate and quality collaboration happens and for the right reasons.

Outside of the University, the most impactful and most profound projects of creative interdisciplinary have for me, like in post war Europe, come out of the need to lift the spirits of its people and to offer hope when all hope seems to have been lost. As an example, the wonderful Ark Nova collaboration between artist Anish Kapoor and architect Arata Isozaki in 2013 came about in response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the east coast of Japan two years earlier. Artist and architect, together with an array of technicians, scientist, musicians and craftspeople designed and constructed a mobile inflatable concert hall to offer a series of free travelling classical concerts for the survivors and for the families and friends of those lost. This wonderful interaction demonstrates our shared human traits of empathy and compassion, and shows what can be achieved by working together with a common cause. The impact of this project would be a hard one to measure of course, difficult to catogarise and I imagine a hard one to convince for project funding in its planning stage, but never the less a great example of the arts and sciences working as one for the good of humanity and across its disciplinary borders.

This issue offers great examples of interdisciplinary in our sector and also some much needed critical debate about its worth beyond the university. I hope you enjoy this issue of NiTRO.


[1] Frayling,C. 1993. Research in Art & Design. Royal College of Art. Volume 1 [1].

[2] Buanes, A., & Jentoft, S. (2009). Building bridges: Institutional perspectives on interdisciplinary. Futures, 41(7), 446-454. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2009.01.010

[3] Woodrow, R. 2019. Business As Usual. NiTRO archive

[4] Barry, A., Born, G., & Weszkalnys, G. (2008). Logics of interdisciplinary. Economy and Society, 37(1), 20-49. doi:10.1080/03085140701760841