[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
19 April 2015
I’ve written about interdisciplinarity before, but I’m starting to think about it in some more flexible ways. My previous attempt to unpack the topic—in the context of the MFAIA degree criteria—I took a formalist approach. I absolutely believe that there’s a formal way to engage interdisciplinarity—as well as the other “prefix-disciplinarities”—and I see great value in creating new ways of solving problems through a synthesis of the methods and tools used by existing disciplines. But I also understand that this isn’t the way that I think about interdisciplinarity in my practice—either as an artist or as a teacher. And I’d like to use this letter as an opportunity to think about the ways that it’s active in my thinking.
Before I jump into that, I want to define my terms. By formal interdisciplinarity, I mean the reciprocal-engagement of two or more existing disciplines to create a new way of approaching problems and making knowledge. When I was working full-time at Rhode Island School of Design, I was fortunate to be part of a committee that drafted a National Science Foundation grant that engaged all ten Rhode Island colleges and universities in joint work around climate change. For RISD, this meant many things, but manifest first in an interdisciplinary exploration related to the visualization of scientific data. Designers and scientists worked together to advance their interest in climate change by applying what they already knew, and as a consequence developed new tools. Beyond this one practical example, I think about the work of the Feminist philosopher, Chris Cuomo, who has applied the methods of Feminist Studies to Ecology and helped define a new field, Eco-Feminism. Similarly, I think about this in relation to the ways I’ve tried to learn from the thinking that’s emerging from Queer Ecology.
By informal interdisciplinarity, I mean the application of methods and knowledge from one field to another. I think this approach is much more common—certainly it is in our program—and it’s the approach that I take in my work. To my mind, it means immersing oneself in a discourse or disciplinary approach and finding ways to apply the tools of that discourse meaningfully in one’s primary field. I think about the work of the recently deceased Eduardo Galeano. Trained as a journalist, he used his archival skills to write a radical history of the Americas from South American and indigenous perspectives: The Memory of Fire Trilogy. Or of Noam Chomsky: trained as a linguist, he brings his theories of genetically encoded linguistic structure to his humanist activism. And I think about scholars like bell hooks and Cornel West, who’ve drawn from specific fields, like literature and theology, and advanced their voices by drawing from pedagogical, philosophical, and aesthetic studies. As they reflect upon their careers and friendship, it’s clear that they seem themselves as situated in a dialogue between ways of knowing the world.
I should note that I don’t mean to draw too sharp a line between form and informal interdisciplinarity—or imply that these are technical terms. Nor do I mean to define the artists and intellectuals I’ve named in tight categories. Rather, I’m trying to create spaces through which you might think about your work in interdisciplinary terms. Furthermore, even though we’re all engaged in an interdisciplinary program, I don’t have any axe to grind against disciplinary approaches. In my view, interdisciplinarity doesn’t have greater virtue than disciplinary study, but rather signifies an additional means of inquiry. And finally, in regard to caveats, our program doesn’t require you to be interdisciplinary artists in order to graduate; rather we require that you understand how interdisciplinary practice and thinking operate in the world and that you’re aware of how they might animate your practice.
In relation to my own practice, sometimes people tell me that I’m an interdisciplinary artist because I’m both a visual artist and writer. I think this is rubbish, and doubt that rigorous interdisciplinary practice can emerge between the arts. They’re just too similar as disciplinary forms. Indeed, I tend to consider myself an interdisciplinary thinker rather than an interdisciplinary artist. And in my perspective this becomes most evident when I cross spheres of working than in any specific work or artwork.
For example, interdisciplinary thinking allows me to be an active intellectual, a public intellectual, a thinker who is able to move between discourses as they make themselves evident to me. I’m not a doctor, but I can engage in thinking with doctors because I know how to ask questions within a disciplinary discourse. Similarly, I’m not an urban planner, but I understand how systems work and can apply my systems knowledge to their systems theory. And when I choose to act in a non-art field—like I did when I directed a public service program for seventeen years—I bring the methodology of the arts to my work. Specifically, as an artist, I’m trained to solve problems in non-linear and compositional ways. I bring this to my teaching and my activism, by following the path that emerges rather than trying to predict the most efficient avenue. And furthermore, when these dynamics are turned around, my commitment to populist models of learning—like Progressive Education—and my belief that artists must ethically engage the world inform the way that I make artworks.
Each of you will have to claim your relationship to interdisciplinarity before you graduate. I hope that this can be an engaging and exciting process, and not one that’s freighted with unnecessary expectation. Spending some time thinking about these questions and exploring the concept with others can help you understand the many possibilities open to you. I urge you to resist the impulse to close down your exploration too early or dismiss too quickly ideas that might feel disorienting. Indeed interdisciplinarity should disorient us from familiar thinking, so that we can be open to the possibility of discovery.