Improving transdisciplinary arts-science partnerships

By Tania Leimbach and Keith Armstrong

1. Tania Leimbach (biography)
2. Keith Armstrong (biography)

Collaborations with scientists have become a major focal point for artists, with many scientists now appreciating the value of building working relationships with artists and projects often going far beyond illustration of scientific concepts to instead forge new collaborative frontiers. What is needed to better “enable” and “situate” arts–science partnerships and support mutual learning?

Our research looked at the facilitation of arts–science partnerships through the investigation of two unique collaborative projects, developed at two geographically distinct sites, initiated by artist Keith Armstrong. One was enacted with an independent arts organisation in regional Australia and the other at a university art gallery in Sydney, Australia.

We used these examples to focus our thinking on challenges of “enabling” and “situating” new practice, and here we share emergent insights. The two questions that focused our contextual analysis were:

  1. What are the challenges of sustaining balanced relationships in hybrid practices?
  2. What are the shared characteristics of sites that foster and support arts–science transdisciplinary practice? (Leimbach and Armstrong 2018).

Insights into arts–science transdisciplinary creative partnerships

We developed six key insights:

  1. The ingredients necessary for successful collaboration include: (a) generous amounts of time; (b) clarity around boundaries and the limits of each discipline; (c) mutual respect; (d) a shared language; (e) co-location; (f) institutional license and will; and, (g) “universal” values beyond the necessities of the market.
  2. Creative collaboration relies upon open networks, experimentation and qualities of synchronicity and discovery. An evolving and open framework for collaboration free of prescriptive methods or fixed certainties about how to work collaboratively is also crucial, as the transdisciplinary process typically begins with discussion of principles and conversations that foreground what might be possible – rather than being driven by clear method and process. In turn this permits the possibility to observe and understand how other collaborators do their work.
  3. Reciprocity leads to mutual learning. Collaborations offer scientists new ways to think about the interaction of research with publics and the ‘affective’ dimension of the arts. Scientists can provide the contexts, data, knowledge and experiences that they understand will be catalytic for artists.
  4. Sociological “asymmetries” can prevent successful collaborations; these may include access to funding, opposing demands on teacher–researchers and arts practitioners, and work practices across different disciplines.
  5. Disciplinary and institutional asymmetries foreground differing publication validation systems and discipline-specific foci. For example, unlike the humanities, science faculties rarely submit non-traditional research outcomes, as these kinds of transdisciplinary outputs do not enjoy the same perceived weight and may be thought of as non-strategic within their home discipline. In contrast academically employed artists routinely shape their collaborative artworks as non-traditional research outcomes whilst also producing associated traditional research outcomes.
  6. Critical reflection across both projects in this study highlighted deep asymmetries between the expected roles and responsibilities of disciplinary experts. In particular, artists are expected to transgress whereas the training and experience of scientists is to understand and avoid risks inherent in advocacy. Furthermore, in today’s politicised climate, the risk of being labelled ‘activist’ appears very real for scientists.

Supporting creative partnerships into the future

Arts–science projects have the ability to engage diverse publics with the potential to ‘do’ social, cultural and political work, helping reframe partisan political debates, and bringing the material thinking of artists and scientists together in ways that encourage audiences to reflect on both forms of practice more deeply. The learning opportunities they provide for both collaborators and audiences may therefore also contribute to the development of skill sets and knowledges capable of confronting the massive challenges of the 21st century.

Public arts organisations and university art galleries are both sites that should possess agency and flexibility to foster transdisciplinarity, if there is shared belief in its significance. They are also spaces where some of the sociological asymmetries of arts–science partnerships can be addressed by formalising the complex mechanisms and processes that support inter- and trans- disciplinary collaborations.

While every context is different, there are some common features that enable and situate arts–science collaboration:

  • A formalized context-appropriate process to help resolve asymmetries and to support greater involvement and access for collaborators who might be otherwise sidelined.
  • A steering group (“brains trust”) drawn from several disciplines – artists, scientists, curators and other academics – to work through new proposals together.
  • An optimal environment for the display of work that is technically networked with access to collaborative display systems, a strong flow through of people with street visibility, a lab-like area designed for collaborative process, and a space with lounge-like ambience for learning and open dialogue.
  • In terms of public engagement and education, a high-level understanding of communications and social change theory is valuable, along with clear methods for outreach and education beyond the walls of an organisation.

Other experiences

Major funding bodies and diverse grant schemes in the USA, the UK and Australia have fostered hundreds of collaborations between artists and scientists in recent years, reflecting a growing confidence in the potential for transdisciplinary learning embedded in hybrid practices. This increased funding for arts–science endeavours has further assisted in removing barriers to collaboration and catalyzed new types of relationships between diverse institutions, promoters, and venues, and with public and professional audiences. However, there is still much more to do to overcome the social and material barriers that restrict such boundary work.

Advocacy organisations such as the Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design (SEAD) network look for ways to address many of the fundamental challenges in arts–science partnerships including the need to generate public dialogue about the intellectual, cultural and economic potential of creative intersections of art, science and technology (Malina, Strohecker and LaFayette 2015).

We are interested in the experiences of others. Do these insights resonate with your practice? What are your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of working in arts–science collaborations?

To find out more:
Leimbach, T. and Armstrong, K. (2018). Creative Partnerships and Cultural Organisations: “Enabling” and “Situating” Arts–Science Collaboration and Collective Learning. In, D. M. Fam, L. Neuhauser and P. Gibbs (eds.), Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice and Education: The Art of Collaborative Research and Collective Learning. Springer: Basel, Switzerland. (Online – book details):

The two projects which underpin this blog post are:
Black Nectar and Over Many Horizons (O|M|H), both on the Embodied Media website of Keith Armstrong.

Malina, R., Strohecker, C. and LaFayette, C. (2015). Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation: Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design (On behalf of Science, Engineering, Arts and Design (SEAD) network contributors). The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America.

Biography: Tania Leimbach PhD lectures within the School of Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, and within the Masters program at the University of New South Wales Art + Design. She examines art/science partnerships and the potential for transdisciplinary learning embedded in new forms of collaborative practice. She also works as a communication strategist and consultant for social enterprises and on environmental campaigns.

Biography: Keith Armstrong is a freelance media artist and part-time senior lecturer within the School of Creative Arts at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. His research is profoundly motivated by issues of social and ecological justice. He has specialised for over twenty years in collaborative, experimental practices with emphasis upon innovative performance forms, site-specific electronic arts, networked interactive installations, alternative interfaces, art–science collaborations and socially and ecologically engaged practices. His engaged, participative practices provoke audiences to comprehend, envisage and imagine collective pathways towards sustainable futures. Through inventing radical research methodologies and processes he has led and created over sixty major art works and process-based projects, which have been shown extensively in Australia and overseas.

12 thoughts on “Improving transdisciplinary arts-science partnerships”

  1. The authors raise two fundamental questions regarding art-science collaboration. The six key insights discussed are really essential to answer these two questions. However, I would like to confirm that successful collaboration must be built on sharing mutual benefits equally so that art-science can inform each other. As a specialist in sciences of new-media art, I would like to say that the term art-science collaboration or intersection is often employed very indiscriminately by artists who apply it to their paintings of robots or chromosome-shaped classical sculptures, drawings, or paintings inspired by any biological elements at any scale, or even their biological microscopic images. The most unsuccessful collaborations between art and sciences, therefore, are due to either superficial understanding of the role of art (minimizing its role in science as just a means of decorating or passive visualization of any scientific product) or superficial using of sciences and technology (minimizing their role in art as just tools and techniques for a technical solution in any artwork). For instance, inviting artists to ornament a product or to present it in ads is not a collaboration but it is just using a field independently to achieve another field’s purposes. Also, drawing or sculpting inspired from forms of cells or any other scientific pictorial element are not art-science collaboration as the result would be presented through the same traditional channel.

    The major condition for a successful collaboration is the methodological integrations among the artistic creation processes and the processes of any scientific experiment. So, the system of artwork itself must be integrated within the system of producing the related scientific experiment. In the other word, new-media art here cannot define the cell, for instance, as a pictorial form but as a system that can be functionally and conceptually integrated into the system of the artwork itself. In this way, the entire artistic project is an integral part of the knowledge cycle itself and also can be considered a functional and conceptual extension of the scientific inquiry, through which the laypeople can interact and the experiment can be esthetically revised within the society’s ethical and cultural constitutions.

    For further clarification, see examples of successful art-science collaboration:
    Vimeo video (2 minutes and 10 seconds long) titled ‘Installation Melting Memories (Refik Anadol): Documentation piece’

  2. Your identification of an “optimum environment” as one of the factors that enable arts-science collaborations is significant. The characteristics of this optimal environment encourage a balance between structured and planned work (the lab) and unstructured and unplanned interaction (the lounge): between formality and informality. Encouraging and attaining this balance seems to be a characteristic shared by a diverse range of collaborations. It could, therefore, be a general principle underlying collaborative success:

  3. Great article Tania and Keith!
    I would really like to work more with artists…. One of the issues Ive experienced in trying to work with designers and artists is exactly what you have described – ‘asymmetry’ or perceived inequalities in the value of artistic knowledge, skills and experiences, where some team members find it hard to appreciate the value of artists/art in complex projects

    Thanks for an insightful article!

    • Thank you Dena – given the role of the artist in transdisciplinary teams is so often to problematise – it’s a harder sell .. “why not include me in this project so I can generate problems for you” 🙂 Seriously though, every strata of life is riven with these inequities – what artists need to do is continue to get out there and show how this working across disciplines and finding connections between things, people, cultures, ecologies and situations is their modus operandi! Nobody can afford to stand back in our times of mass extinction. Thanks for the thoughts ..

      • Hi Dena – we should think about ways to collaborate on a project that could help to break through some of these misconceptions and assumptions – it would be a great process to explore with you. Thanks for your positive response.

  4. It is interesting that your blog is focused outward on how these collaborations can act on interactions with the academic community and some non-science and non art public. Whoever they are. Perhaps the proximity of arts and sciences can lead to interactions within the sciences and within the arts that are even more valuable – the basic lesson being that there are many different ways of knowing and different forms of knowledge that have inherent value. No human activity alone has a lock on meaningful knowledge. Most of the issues we claim deeply about (and hard as it may be to believe they need not all be political) are unlikely to be solved in a uni-disciplinary fashion. Perhaps learning to collaborate across differences could be a generalizable skill?

    • Thank you for those thoughts – I couldn’t agree more _ I think we are seeing that skill imperative taken up in tertiary arts education now .. which can only be a good thing – I can’t comment in other disciplines of course. We appreciate your thoughts!

  5. Hello Tania and Keith:
    Thanks for this wonderful addition.
    Ages ago during my undergrad I took a non-credit course offered by a biologist (with an electron microscope) and a water colour artist. This first would produce amazing slides and the second would show us water colour techniques. This course changed my career as I became an agronomist-illustrator (a fancy term for an extension worker with a pencil and paper). The university now offers combined science- art degrees; which is a major plus.
    Fast forward a few decades, and we have been experimenting with a hybrid between evaluation and communication; the latter having much art in the mix. Of possible interest to you as another example; in our case we mentor research teams using this hybrid approach that now includes Theory of Change (back to drawing).
    Warm regards,

    • Hi Ricardo, The recollection of your early experience moving between the arts and sciences highlights how valuable this kind of learning can be. It sounds like it set you on your path for life. There is so much rich learning material and potential insights for students through this kind of collaboration. I would be really interested to hear more about the example of a hybrid mix of evaluation and communication for students in your contemporary role. Please share more! Thanks again.


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