Claudia Schnugg and Bianka Hofmann in a short conversation on artist contributions in times of uncertainty.
Map of Utopia (1595-96 copper engraving), Abraham Ortelius, King Baudouin Foundation 2019; Thomas More / Public domain.
Since the lockdown began in mid-March, art has been providing essential contributions that help us as individuals to get through isolation (social distancing) and the crisis while maintaining a sense of community – we're in this together. Making music together on balconies, virtual museum tours, and live streams of concerts are important contributions in difficult times. On social media, many share overviews of free artistic content. But artists are important in times of uncertainty not only because they connect us as a community or provide us with books, films, and music, but also because their artistic perspectives and approaches can open doors to a true, socially new beginning.
Artists and curators ask crucial questions about this current development. Last week, Monica Bello, Head of Arts@CERN, tweeted: What's the position of the cultural sector within the #Coronavid19 outbreak? is it all about providing and inviting to consume content online? or can we go further and reposition our sector as a valuable thread in society in an increasingly uncertain world? how could that work?
The programme at CERN is a good example of how artists provide access to highly specialised complex technology and science, build bridges for a wide audience, and initiate exchange. But as Monica Bello suggests, they could do much more. Futurologists such as Li Edelkoort paint a positive picture of the postcrisis world, pointing out that society and the economy will want to, and must, follow new paths to rise up into a world that has changed for the better. But how do we arrive there? How can everyone contribute and walk a common path? How can we use the new technologies that are available to us? Artists here are not only the anchors during this crisis, but also essential navigators in an uncertain future.
Art already plays a role in sounding out new technologies, new applications, and possible problematic developments in society. This crisis forces us to face the social inequalities. Current questions concerning privatisation in the health care system, the handling of personal data, and the security of apps for tracking the movements of corona infected are highly charged examples. In the future, socially relevant topics such as data protection, environmental and climate protection, health, and lifelong learning will result in a new list of priorities in interaction with the economy. The success of services and product development can no longer be measured solely in terms of profit and efficiency.
Bianka Hofmann: In a new beginning, artists are important agents of innovation. The call to socially engaged citizens, programmers, creatives, and designers to participate in the German federal government's #WIRVSVIRUS hackathon on March 19 and its results showed that open, flexible formats of collaboration can drive innovation and involve artistic strategies. Now is the time to set up more artist residencies to be able to react to this complex crisis in various sectors of society. Artists are the experts for new ways and cross-disciplinary solutions; they are the agents of emergence that can lead to real change. This is exemplified by the program that Domhnaill Hernon leads at Nokia Bell Labs, called Experiments in Art and Technology. He regularly emphasizes the importance of the expertise and approach of the artists who deviate from processes in technology, science, and business. Importantly, the artist’s strategies can enter these collaborations and are not tamed, do not have to adapt their thinking to those of technology and business paradigms. He repeatedly calls for a review of what, in the socially relevant sense, are real innovations that bring about significant worldwide change, and what are not.
Claudia Schnugg: I examined many excellent examples with management research and social science methods that illustrate how artists, in intensive collaboration with researchers in technology development, make real contributions to innovation processes. In my book you can find an overview of brilliant artists and scientists collaborating, looking at their process and how to integrate in organizations. Working with artists can create a free space in the organization where scientists and developers can rethink projects; they create an important experimental space. New contexts can also be identified in rather banal ways, as artistic processes are very different from development processes in science and technology. Art also offers a new level of experience through the aesthetic value of artistic exploration. These new experiences can contribute meaningfully to the scientific process and illuminate implicit processes. Much happens on the personal level. Learning processes that are set in motion, new perspectives, stories that are told in a new way, new connections and contexts, emerging spaces, and imagination play an important role.
Bianka Hofmann: Yes, with the help of artistic practices, the focus in working and learning can again be directed to inner motivations, talents and resources and away from purely external goals set by others! Both self-determined and intergenerational learning will gain increasing importance in the future. Schools should not only be filled with life by pupils and teachers, but also by various representatives of society, by artists and scientists, or by employees from (technology) companies. Ultimately, most of today's pupils will work in professions we can’t even envision. In workshops students can slip into the role of experts, inventors and creative people and explore topics and theories together with them and work with methods and practices from real-life professional life. Technological innovation cycles have become so short that we need to strengthen the competent handling of new technologies and skills for continuous independent acquisition.
At Fraunhofer MEVIS, an Institute for the advancement of applied research, for example, we explore artistic and dialogue-oriented interactions with young researchers and engagement with the public. To research and innovate responsibly, mathematicians and computer scientists incorporate other disciplines such as art to contextualize digital medicine. The researcher integrate artistic approaches with an expert platform that is usually used to develop medical applications for diagnosis and therapy planning. Together with the scientists I create immersive short films for an experiential understanding of difficult health topics and complex technologies for the broader public.
In addition, we develop STEAM workshops with artists like Yen Tzu Chang, as experiments to create space for possibilities where students can approach STEM topics in a new way. Artistic practices can help uncover an individual’s inherent talents and interests. Ultimately, this applies not only to the next generation, but also to those involved for instance in industry and healthcare. For a new start, we are now forced to find new answers to the question of what constitutes meaning and success for both individuals and society.
Claudia Schnugg: Absolutely! Working at the intersection of art, business, and science offers a wide range of ways to involve and integrate different disciplines and people to develop innovative solutions. The concrete project goals for such art residencies are designed collaboratively. The project Agent Unicorn by Anouk Wipprecht is a fine example: the artist has united children with ADHD, scientists, and the latest technological developments to explore therapeutic options together. The understanding gained has opened up new paths for the involved company. In addition to a hackathon series, a new product and an education kit resulted from this cooperation.
In keeping with the current situation, Lucy McRae's fictional documentary The Insitute of Isolation questions what isolation does to people and where humanity wants to go. Both a debate with scientists from various disciplines and with the public led to joint discussions about it means emotionally, physiologically, and socially to enable human reproduction and development without physical, human proximity. With regard to the deepened knowledge about diseases, bacteria, and viruses, the work of Anna Dumitriu is impressive. In collaboration with scientists, she has indicated important directions while simultaneously engaging the public. Another interesting example is the work of Tissue Culture and Art from the early 2000s. In a residency at a medical institute, the artists conceptualized producing meat in vitro, out of which art projects such as Disembodied Cuisine and Victimless Leather grew. The artists raised socially relevant questions about the handling of animal products. Scientists and entrepreneurs were then inspired by the central ideas of the works in a different form. So-called BioArt offers many interesting examples of how ethical discussions and debates on values can be conducted in the interplay of disciplines.
Bianka Hofmann: Unbore, a non-profit organization that advocates arts, life sciences, and technology intersections, recently compiled an overview of artistic projects that creatively address our relationship to viruses, representing everything unfamiliar or strange that frightens us. They challenge us to rethink polarized points of view.
Claudia Schnugg: The collaborative interaction of artists and scientists from various disciplines will be essential, especially now and after this crisis, in order to break new ground substantially.