By Associate Professor Jonathan Duckworth
I am fascinated by research that brings together the arts, design, science and technology having worked collaboratively across these domains for most of my academic career. My own interdisciplinary journey began with two research projects funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the Australia Council for the Arts through their Synapse initiative. This initiative aimed to encourage long term creative experimental collaboration between scientists and artists over the 3-4 years duration of an ARC Linkage grant. When our team applied for the ARC Linkage grant in 2006 it was a radical idea that the arts could collaborate with other disciplines through a funding process normally associated with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).
From my experience, research collaborations that cross the perceived humanities and science divide are combinatorial and integrative, producing outcomes that neither would achieve alone. Within academia, interdisciplinary research does not displace or reduce the role and value of the enquiry of either discipline but rather it is likely to enrich the capabilities of both. The process of interdisciplinary collaboration is the very foundation from which the cross-fertilisation of ideas can produce new discoveries and insights. Yet how this process manifests itself is still elusive, particularly within creative arts practice.
The concept of interdisciplinarity has been around well before the term arguably first appeared in the English language in the early 1900’s. The relatively recent use of the term reflects the growing recognition within academia of complex challenges and processes of synthesis that need to combine research methods and strategies within collective actions and multi-disciplinary collaborations.
I have found that the utilisation of technology is a common ground shared between most disciplines and is a major catalyst through which disciplines can become entangled and combined in ways that are genuinely beneficial. Technology can be used as a catalysing agent for change, one that penetrates through disciplinary silos and can bring together disparate groups and cultures to prototype new concepts, ideas and programs. Different units of thought from different disciplines can coalesce and bring about moments of creativity and/or design that have the potential to establish new processes and understandings. Creative arts practice researchers who use emerging technology often produce new pathways for creative expression by developing novel processes, systems, and ancillary intellectual property.
Interdisciplinary practice is, however, not without its challenges. I have observed on my journey how different disciplines use different tools and techniques, as well as different “languages” which represent real barriers of engagement that need to be overcome. Interdisciplinary collaborations should be open to different approaches, tolerate failure and embrace risk which is easier said than done. The siloed structure of STEM based disciplines, research organisations and associated funding systems are outmoded and often not conducive to support researchers taking risks and working across boundaries. Collaborating experimentally in so called “blue-sky” research beyond solution-seeking endeavours places many creative arts-led researchers with little sources of funding. More difficult still, is finding academics from non-arts disciplines open to risk, engaged, and motivated to further the development of new knowledge incorporating speculative approaches of creative discourse.
Interdisciplinary intellectual enquiry that includes creative practice researchers still tends to operate at the fringes of research agendas. Creative practice researchers usually operate independently outside of scientific organisations and institutions. Arts based academics and students alike often need support, time and space to negotiate collaborative projects, including the securing and allocation of resources. Placing interdisciplinarity in the mainstream is often compounded by the difficulty in defining the role creative arts and design practices can make to other research domains. This produces an awkward relationship when collaboration rarely starts from a pre-established and shared desired outcome, and diverse teams conduct research in a domain whose definition only emerges as the research proceeds.
Creative practice is inherently about taking risks, a messy way of seeing beyond sight. As a form of specialised practice, interdisciplinary artists invent new ways of seeing, producing and relating to the world, offering great potential to work collaboratively within research networks, science precincts, and innovation hubs. Creativity is the common denominator of innovation regardless of research sector, injecting intellectual property into worlds of enterprise, production and meaning-making. If creative arts research outcomes are to have meaning in the face of complex challenges, it will invariably tend to operate across other non-arts disciplines.
Dr Jonathan Duckworth is an Associate Professor in Digital Design and director of CiART (Creative interventions, Art and Rehabilitative Technology), School of Design at RMIT. Dr Duckworth has established a strong reputation for his practice-based design research that forges synergies between media art, science, rehabilitation, disability and game technology. His work has been recognised for design innovation as a recipient of the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Design Award and 2016 Good Design Award. His work has yielded significant innovations within acquired brain injury rehabilitation, the arts and technology field, and have generated significant impact in other cultural and community sectors relevant to disability, performance and participation in the arts.