Functions of Art - Thoughts from the Transdisciplinarity Conference

In the rather unexpected new building of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg by Daniel Libeskind “The International Transdisciplinarity Conference in 2017” is currently taking place. It is is co-organised by Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany and the Network for Transdisciplinary Research (td-net) and attended by an exciting international crowd of scientists, researchers and thinkers who contribute to an extensive programme of workshops, panels and lectures. The programme provides tantalising titles to choose from, confronting one with the challenge of deciding on what to attend and what to miss. How could I decide if I should listen to „Transformational learning in transdisciplinary processes“, „Beyond rhetoric: constructive dialogue on interdisciplinary futures“ or „To control or not to control? Social and epistemic dilemmas of control“? At least the decision is taken out of my hand in the afternoon when I’m presenting – together with Juuso Tervo of University Wide Art Studies of Aalto University - the Hybrid Plattform during the session on „Facilitating institutional change through inter- and transdisciplinarity“ (whilst sadly missing the session „Transdisciplinarity in and through education“). The discussions, questions and comments coming my way after the presentation felt like an affirmation for our work here at the Hybrid Plattform and brought up interesting points. But before I can even given them the needed brain space I’m confronted with new input that stimulates yet more thoughts.

Still, one point keeps coming up so many times that it dominates my thoughts: the role of art within transdisciplinarity. It isn’t taken as a natural element of transdisciplinary work, instead it is (mainly) seen as a possible “add-on”. Art is mentioned as a “communicator”, I hear expectations that art can provide “deeper knowledge”. Others speak of the need of art as a way to break through barriers provided through the sole use of language, i.e. art as a tool of mutual understanding on a non-vocal level. And whilst the wide world of the arts is suddenly burdened with quite a range of functions, the definition of transdisciplinarity is much clearer. There seems to be a general agreement that transdisciplinary work requires a clear set of stakeholders – namely science, society and politics – and the statement of one speaker to look at transdisciplinary work as a “plurality of forms” start to seem like an outright revolutionary statement.

And this conundrum of expectations and definitions isn’t solved by the presentation of David Maggs from the University of British Colombia either. His lectures has the title “Of what use is Art?” and already the word "use" makes me wonder…. He first attempts to show through a range of definitions of art (I assume he means visual arts but it remains unclear to me) how art can be considered a new means to old truths and values – or an old means to new truths and values. I wonder if this statement is a purely semantic show-off as I can’t quite make out the deeper significance of either statements. But maybe I just need some more time to process. More interesting to me are his questions: “Is art as good a way of knowing as science? Is science as problematic a way of knowing as art?” This is something I’ll definitively ponder upon a bit more.

In the meantime I find myself at a loss to formulate the best definition for the Hybrid Plattform and our projects. The day isn’t over yet and already Juuso – whom I’m partly paraphrasing in the following - and I start discussing possible approaches: Should we look at an etymological approach, understanding transdisciplinarity within higher education and research as a leading out (ex-ducere in education) and beyond (trans-) what has already been taught and known (disciplina). Or is it more a dialogue that involves a reciprocal process of letting go (unlearning) and letting in (learning)? Well, there are more days of input and discussion to come and maybe clarity will appear. And if not: inspiration was provided!


- Nina