Transdisciplinarity: The ‘How’ Is More Compelling Than The ‘Why’

By Dr Tracey M Benson

It has been interesting to read recent articles in NiTRO which explore the issues related to the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), the challenge of funding losses/redistributions and a questioning of how creative researchers can have a bigger impact on audiences/communities.

What I think is a major stumbling block for the creative arts is they are often perceived as a siloed area of knowledge, which is only facilitated by established economies and spaces. This inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of the impact that creative arts and design have on bigger discussions related to innovation and STEM. Professors Buckley and Cominos discuss some of the issues, recognising a preference towards right/left brain thinking by creating divisions between humanities and STEM.

Let's have a closer look at the Innovation and STEM agenda. What I have found fascinating is the appropriation of such methods as user centred design, design thinking and conceptual mapping - all are applied tools that have their roots in design, not science, maths or engineering. It is interesting that the push for STEM in education is also running parallel to the National Science and Innovation Agenda (NISA).

In the NISA report there is a significant emphasis on STEM education, with a focus on women. What is also very clear in the report is a strong emphasis on how the NISA and STEM education will encourage market driven results. Therein lies a challenge for the arts - although the arts contributes a significant amount of GDP, the funding of arts activities and artists has declined. The NISA talks about the role of entrepreneurship - one would think that this is a core skill that artists develop to be successful. There is also a strong emphasis on collaboration, which is an area where humanities and the arts could have a bigger impact.

Transdisciplinarity is a solution that offers the opportunity for a range of knowledges and skills to be deployed - in a non-preferential manner. I think it is critical for the creative arts to be making a bigger impact outside of its traditional spaces of galleries, theatres and art fairs.

So what are some solutions and how do we get there? Transdisciplinarity is a solution that offers the opportunity for a range of knowledges and skills to be deployed - in a non-preferential manner. I think it is critical for the creative arts to be making a bigger impact outside of its traditional spaces of galleries, theatres and art fairs. Instead of lamenting about the amount of government money that goes to sport, perhaps work out how the arts could have a presence in sport?

In recent years, I have been very privileged to have worked with Indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand. This experience has provided some rich insights into how to consider the landscape, our place within it and the importance of culture to human health and wellbeing. These relationships /contexts are not seen as discrete and separate - they are interrelated and integral to each other - a cosmology. What I have also learnt is that multifarious systems of knowledge need to ‘speak' to each other in a non-hierarchical way.

To provide a practical example of transdisciplinarity, The Way of the Turtle is a longitudinal project seeking to address how art, science, data and Indigenous knowledge can work together in a way that can build healthy and empowered communities. One iteration of The Way of the Turtle was presented as an outdoor installation at Parahaki (a Māori marae located in the Taranaki region of the North Island). The work used a combination of turtle data from Yorta Yorta country, LEDs that could be run on solar, and audio from Parihaka descendant Jo Tito and Yorta Yorta Elder Sharon Atkinson. This collaboration was part of Water, Peace, Power and brought together artists, scientists, technologists and knowledge owners to share ideas and work together on projects.

The Way of the Turtle: Exchanging Breath, Parihaka Pa 2016, Photo: Tracey Benson

The Way of the Turtle: Exchanging Breath, Parihaka Pa 2016, Photo: Tracey Benson

As educators and researchers in the creative arts, we need to be making a stronger connection to how our skills and knowledge is already part of a dialogue about innovation. It is not a case of ‘taking back what is ours' so to speak, but a stronger recognition of the interconnectedness of knowledge systems and the mutual benefits that can be gleaned from using transdisciplinarity as a framework for building capacity.

As educators and researchers in the creative arts, we need to be making a stronger connection to how our skills and knowledge is already part of a dialogue about innovation.

 

Tracey Benson is an artist and researcher based in Canberra. Her creative work experiments with a range of media - video, online, open data, mobile technologies and augmented reality. She often collaborates with cultural owners and guides - working with Indigenous communities, historians, artists, technologists and thinkers. Community and audience engagement are areas of relevance and this is echoed in her work with government on sustainability programs plus in her work in the university sector. Tracey is a sessional academic at the Faculty of Art and Design and a Professional Associate of the Institute of Applied Ecology, both at University of Canberra.