Thursday, January 14, 2010

Investigatio: Workshop at Design London/RCA/Imperial College

Yesterday I joined around 30 people discussing multi/inter/transdisciplinarity at the Investigatio event in London organised by Anne-Laure Fayard (visiting academic at Design London, from NYU-Poly) and Bruce Tether (Design London). In addition to the workshop, Anne-Laure curated an exhibition exploring "what is research" with work by researchers working in the arts, design, social sciences and management, including Yasmine Abbas, James Auger, Anne-Laure Fayard, Ileana Stigliani, Patrick Stacey, Nina Wakeford, Aileen Wilson, and my own rat project (see image). See Anne-Laure's blog post here.

Since Design London are creating a podcast of the event (available here), I will not say too much here other than to give tweet-sized summaries of the contributions by
- Peter Childs, Professor of Engineering Design, and Marco Aurisicchio, Imperial College, proposing the jet engine as a model of creativity, and design linking creativity and innovation and the importance of language in interdisciplinary encounters
- Tony Dunne, Professor and Head of Department, Design Interactions, Royal College of Art, proposing designers can contribute a great deal if they shift from application to implication
- Bruce Tether, Professor of Design and Innovation, Design London, Imperial College, discussing institutional limits to multidisciplinary research because of the pressure to publish in A-list journals
- Lucy Kimbell (ie me), Clark Fellow in Design Leadership, Said Business School, Oxford (see below); and
- Simon Blyth, IDEO and Julien McHardy, Lancaster University, on user-less design rooted in practices

Here's more or less what I presented.

Aesthetic play and interdisciplinary ambiguity

Many of you will be familiar with debates over the past 10-15 years about the nature of research in art and design, in particular that of practice-based research. I will not rehearse these debates here today, but make three brief observations which will serve to inform what follows.

The first is to note criticism by Michael Biggs and others of the way that art and design research in the UK academy has adopted the natural sciences as the paradigm to which it should aspire and against which its contributions should be assessed (Biggs 2004; Biggs and Buchler 2007; Rust 2007). For Biggs, this undermines the contributions that art and design research can make, because its outputs offer a plurality of interpretations and are open to, although not reliant on, non-linguistic experience.

The second is the important question of aesthetic autonomy, which so far has not been discussed extensively in design research (Ross 2008; Ranciere 2004). Ranciere makes a distinction between three regimes – the first, the ethical regime of images which reflect the collective ethos, rooted in Platonism; the second, the representative regime of art, in which art’s function is mimesis and the Aristotelian idea of consciously shaping matter; and the third, the aesthetic regime of art influenced by Kant and Shiller. This latter regime offers freedom from prescribed criteria, disrupts hierarchies – and – relevant to today, gives art the function of reorganising the accepted perceptions of reality.

The third observation is that the natural sciences – if we can even call them such – are themselves objects of scrutiny and contestation. Research in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), for example, has shown how science and other kinds of knowledge production are very social matters (eg Foucault 1972; Latour and Woolgar 1979; Shapin and Schaffer 1985). Scientific research is not neutral and the ways that scientific knowledge is produced, legitimised and disseminated are subject to questions of power, value, and difference.

To put this another way
- firstly, the nature and value of practice-based art and design research is still unclear, and
- secondly, the aesthetic regime of art of the past 200 years or so is concerned with reorganising perceptions of reality, and
- even what we might think of as well-established fields saturated with disciplinary rigour as in Kuhnian (1970) normal science, are more messy and ambiguous than many scientists and policy-makers might like to think.

Where does this leave attempts to bring disciplines together to do research? I will argue that it is exactly this ambiguity and disciplinary incoherence that offers opportunities to generate new knowledge, as researchers attempt and fail to combine worldviews and approaches from different disciplines.

There is one further piece of research on which I wish to draw, an empirical study of interdisciplinarity in projects crossing design and IT, social science and design, and art and science (Barry et al 2008). Their starting point was claims about interdisciplinarity rooted in the idea that science is becoming more accountable to society and research is, or should be, more directly relevant to users and stakeholders (Gibbons et al 1994; Nowotny et al 2001).

Research undertaken in Mode 2 knowledge advanced in Gibbons et al (1994) has five criteria:
- knowledge is produced in the context of application
- transdisciplinary research cannot be reduced to disciplines
- it is heterogeneious and there are lots of diverse organisations involved
- it’s more socially accountable and reflexive
- there are diverse quality controls.

When Barry et al set out to examine in more detail so-called interdisciplinary projects, they found the abstract notion of interdisciplinarity promoted by funders and others turned out to be more complicated in practice: two or more disciplines added together do not simply make a nice coherent new field.

Barry et al describe three modes of interdisciplinarity that they identified across the examples they studied in their fieldwork. One, the subordination-service mode, involves one discipline being in service to another, for example artists whose projects were funded to help increase the public understanding of science. The second, the intregrative-synthesis mode, involves disciplines integrating. The third, the agonistic-antagonistic mode, is forged as researchers question disciplinary commitments to ideas of what constitutes reality and knowledge. Barry et al found that some of the interdisciplinary collaborations they studied sprang from a “self-conscious dialogue with, criticism of, or opposition to the limits of established disciplines, or the status of academic research in general and attempts to reconceive or change the object of knowledge” (Barry et al 2008: 29). They found three logics under which claims about interdisciplinarity were advanced (accountability, innovation, ontology) and different kinds of institutional commitment.

My argument today is that this agonistic-antagonistic mode provides a helpful way to think about the positive effects of the disciplinary incoherence and ambiguity I mentioned earlier. If - still early in its trajectory within the academy - art and design research is unclear about the nature of its knowledge and contribution, then it is not necessarily a problem in interdisciplinary research as long as the institutions supporting it are willing and able to recognise the agonistic-antagonistic mode alongside the other modes. In other words, art and design research does not have to be internally coherent, normal science before it engages in interdisciplinary collaboration. It has the potential to mobilise the aesthetic regime of described by Ranciere to reorganise the accepted perceptions of reality within different research fields.

Image: Drawing created by rat, human and software in collaboration through the "Is your rat an artist?" drawing device, part of the Rat Fair organised by Lucy Kimbell at Camden Arts Centre, London, 2005

Monday, January 04, 2010

Visit to Object Research Lab, Amsterdam

This week I'm going to Amsterdam, the guest of Dutch artist Yvonne Droge Wendel and the Object Research Lab. Having met some years ago via a mutual friend, Anna Best, we met again at the CRESC social science conference in Manchester, at which the Object Research Lab ran a session offering encounters with objects including some blobs. I was one of three people Yvonne asked to take home one of these blobs to educate it. My pathetic efforts to carry out this commission are documented in my Educating the Blob blog.

If anyone is in doubt that this is a serious activity, please refer to the Lab's reading list here or read the work of object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman, who was a keynote in Manchester. The basic idea of the Lab's work, as I understand it, is to draw attention to objects and objectness, something that artists and designers already do, of course, but which social scientists tend to ignore, even the ones who make claims about methodologies that "follow the object". I like the extremes Yvonne takes this in her earlier work, for example, getting married to a piece of furniture and creating large objects like a big black blob and placing them in public situations. Her work has included collaborating with Anna Best and others to define and publish an Architecture of Interaction, an important attempt to articulate the underlying design elements in interactions.

This week, the other people Yvonne has invited include my Oxford colleague Noortje Marres and designer Jurgen Bey and digital artist/researcher Sher Doruff. I'm not sure what we'll be doing, other than trying to keep warm, but I hope to post something here.

Multidisciplinary Research: Challenging and Rewarding or Too Damn Difficult?

Wednesday 13 January 2010
3:30 – 7:00
Organized by Design London
Location - Stevens Building, Royal College of Art, London

There is a lot of encouragement for multi-disciplinary research, from policy makers and research funders, and it is generally seen as a ‘good thing’. Yet the reality is that this is often very difficult to execute. For instance, the definition and the evaluation of the outputs (e.g. prototypes, patents or papers) vary across the disciplines, and the results of multi-disciplinary work might well be regarded as below the standard that each individual disciplines seeks to impose on its own work. Consequently, those engaging in multidisciplinary work lose rather than gain credibility in their own ‘home discipline’. To look at these issues, we are holding a workshop that seeks to examine the barriers, challenges and rewards to multi-disciplinary work. The workshop will be followed by a drinks reception and an exhibition presenting research works from engineering, design and social sciences.


Simon Blyth, IDEO and Julien McHardy, Lancaster University
Peter Childs, Professor of Engineering Design, Imperial College
Bill Gaver, Professor of Design, Goldsmiths College
Lucy Kimbell, Clark Fellow in Design Leadership, Said Business School, Oxford
Bruce Tether, Professor of Design and Innovation, Design London, Imperial College
Anthony Dunne, Professor and Head of Department, Design Interactions, Royal College of Art


Jeremy Aynsley, Professor of History of Design, Royal College of Art


Anne-Laure Fayard, Visiting Scholar, Design London, Imperial College and Assistant Professor of Management, Polytechnic Institute of New York University
Bruce Tether, Professor of Design and Innovation, Design London, Imperial College.


Exhibition will include research projects by James Auger (Royal College of Art), Lucy Kimbell (Said Business School), Anne-Laure Fayard (Design London / NYU-Poly), Patrick Stacey (Design London), Ileana Stigliani (Design London), works from the Interaction Design Studio at Goldsmiths and projectsfrom the Mechanical Engineering Department at Imperial College.


Places are limited, and will be issued on a first come first served basis. If you want to attend please complete your details here to reserve a place.