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Beyond Discipline: A PhD Researcher’s Perspective

by Autumn Brown

It’s a Friday here in Dublin and I’ve just finished writing up a new talk on an origin story of objectivity. After a morning of building a palm-sized robot and accompanying set of coding instructions, I’ll spend the afternoon attending talks on incendiary theatre, and the politics of Irish pubs. This is not an unusual day.

I am the PhD researcher in residence at Science Gallery Dublin and a researcher based at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. My research explores the impacts of art-science approaches to learning in the wild, that is, in all the places we make knowledge outside of school. Art-science is a kind of transdisciplinary approach which seeks to address contemporary challenges through exploration, critique, and invention. It is a way of learning, creating, and problem solving which allows for the thorough entanglement not only of disciplinary, but experiential knowledge.

Before starting this PhD, I’d never given much thought to inter- or transdisciplinarity. It just seemed natural to hop the fences into other fields as needed. Finding allies and friends, making colleagues and co-conspirators along the way, seems a good approach in any line of work. Find people who have a passionate interest and deep knowledge of an issue and go from there. This could be knowledge forged in a classroom, a lab, a neighbourhood, a lifetime lived in a particular body, and in a million other ways. One of my responsibilities as a researcher and science communicator, has been to find these experts and create environments where true and equitable collaboration becomes possible.

Purposeful transdisciplinary work takes us beyond context, beyond common ground, to a new place altogether. Somewhere both across and between disciplines. It allows multiple perspectives, experiences and forms of knowledge to create something entirely new. In 2016 designer Neri Oxman proposed that we are now living in “Age of Entanglement,” where art and design, science and technology are not seen in isolation but blended once more, as part of a constantly cycling system, a Kreb’s Cycle of Creativity. As I began my search for an academic home for my PhD, I knew it would need to be within an institution (or institutions) that understood and thrived in this entangled space. It was around that time that I stumbled on a Tweet from my now supervisor advertising a funded PhD position at Science Gallery Dublin.

Places in which art and science come together have proven to be fertile grounds for imagination, and the prototyping of ideas where different forms of inquiry and exploration become possible. I’ve heard Science Gallery described as a permeable membrane, a window into another world, a human fishbowl, and a living laboratory. It is the home of my research to be sure, so in many ways it is my laboratory, but really it is something more valuable than that. It’s a meeting place.

This may sound a little unglamorous but there is nothing in this world so magical as a true meeting place. The liminality, the in-between-ness of them, lends if not neutrality, then a kind of action potential. Or just potential. Meeting places are where anything could happen.

The gallery houses no permanent collection but has historically cycled rapidly through a programme of exhibitions and events centred around a particular theme like intimacy, illusion, and the end of the world. It is a place which sits physically at the periphery of a university and the wider Dublin community. It is also a place where different identities and ideologies collide and collaborate to produce impactful work with a life and legacy that go far beyond the walls of Trinity College.

Where Science Gallery Dublin has been my laboratory, the Trinity Long Room Hub has been my office, and the place I retreat to in order to reflect, prepare, and recharge before going back to the lab. The Hub is comprised of around 40 arts and humanities PhD researchers, and around 10 research fellows. It also acts as the base of operations for a number of large-scale European research projects including Human+ and SHAPE-ID. Every Wednesday, scholars from across the arts and humanities gather as a community to give lightening talks on their work, answering questions and offering resources and support to one another. Here early career researchers are invited to create their own outreach activities and to test new ideas, host conferences, workshops and events.

As Covid began to push us all into our homes and out of communal spaces like Science Gallery and the Long Room Hub, a fellow early career researcher, Amelia McConville and I saw an opportunity.

These are two institutions firmly invested in a radical reformation of inter- and transdisciplinary research. Why not create an event series which brings art, philosophy, politics, technology and science into direct conversation with one another? Could we not create a new virtual space, where international publics could gather to discuss the plurality and potential of work which defied easy disciplinary categorisation? We pitched a salon style event where speakers chatted with us and then dove headfirst into audience interactions to engage in discussions around the interdependent and co-created problems and solutions spanning art, science, and society. We decided to call it the Art + Science Salon inspired in part by the 19th century gatherings where radical ideas found their footing in small conversation groups hosted by women, often in their own homes. As Amelia and I beamed in from our bedrooms we were joined by researchers and creatives from across the globe. Now a bi-monthly event, we’ve had speakers from the MIT Media Lab, NASA JPL, CERN, and the Wellcome Trust. Each one is unique and pushes our boundaries and personal research forward. And while Amelia and I maintain curatorial and creative control, the series would not be possible without the firm support of both the Long Room Hub and Science Gallery Dublin

These advantages have extended not only to the salon series but to my personal academic career and thesis. I have given talks and presented papers at conferences in education, science communication, and science and society studies. My thesis also reflects the broad benefits of this institutional support and a thoroughly transdisciplinary approach. Comprised of three cases studies spanning across Europe, my PhD research focuses on learning opportunities, and evaluation methods which explicitly prioritise the needs, experiences, and perspectives of underserved communities in creating knowledge outside of formal education.

The first case study, zines, answers the call for an evaluation tool which addresses socio-political contexts and reflects the perspectives and values of non-dominant communities. Short for “magazine” or “fanzine,” zines are small DIY booklets which can contain poetry, narrative, drawings, comics, collage and more. Often associated with radical or alternative cultures, they can become a kind of self-made soapbox for the creator, a material artefact that, by its very deconstructed nature, encourages a reflective remixing of ideas. These booklets may be used to document thoughts and feelings, reflect on experiences, respond, critique, invite or incite dialogue. This case exists as a critical component and my primary contribution to the SySTEM 2020 project examining science learning outside the classroom. As a large-scale European project, SySTEM 2020 allows me to examine zines across an international context. I was able to collect data for this case from four partner locations: Science Gallery Dublin, in Dublin Ireland, Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana Slovenia, Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, and Latra, in Lesvos, Greece. As both a visual and text-based artefact, it is uniquely capable of capturing broad responses to learning experiences which blur disciplinary boundaries.

The second case, PLASTIC, is a nationally touring art-science exhibition curated by Science Gallery Dublin and travelling to four locations across Ireland: Wexford, Drogheda, Limerick, and Donegal.  The exhibition includes a co-design element in each location, in which local communities are involved in the creation of an artwork inspired by that locality and its relationship with plastic as a material. Art-science exhibitions have grown increasingly popular, as a way to explore, critique and contribute to scientific and technological innovation. And the exhibition itself has moved beyond collecting and representing knowledge, to creating an opportunity to experiment, to engage, to contribute something entirely new. The work carried out in this study will make a vital contribution to our understanding of the art-science exhibition method as a meaningful form of engagement on topics of urgent worldwide significance: sustainability, patterns of consumption, and capitalism.

My final case study, Tech Scéal[1], is a creative coding and robotics workshop series designed with and for migrant families across Ireland. It combines collaborative storytelling, programming, conversations around artificial intelligence, ethics and robotics. These people have brought with them strong cultural identities, knowledge, and skills which may be hidden from view when they are forced to live in a system which limits their basic human rights. This project actively prioritises and honours the experiences of participants and creates a space for learning with an emphasis on creation, relevance and ownership of new knowledge. The impacts measured include concepts such as attitudes, transformative agency, and understanding through the lens of sociotechnical imaginaries. Sociotechnical imaginaries are imagined forms of social life and social order that centre on the development and fulfilment of innovative scientific and/or technological innovations. Sociotechnical imaginaries are at once descriptive of attainable futures and prescriptive of the sort of futures that groups feel should be attained. These imaginaries have the power to shape technological design, channel public action, and justify the inclusion or exclusion of citizens with respect to the presumed benefits of technological progress

Each case seeks to prioritise marginalised voices and to create instances in which learners may collaborate and imagine more inclusive futures. This work explores the ways in which art-science as a transdisciplinary approach invites people not only to imagine new worlds, but to create them. It reflects not only my experience and ethos as a scientist and communicator, but the continued support I’ve received from bold institutions who believe in a more entangled and equitable future.

[1] Scéal is the Irish language word for story. You can hear it pronounced here.

Autumn Brown is a PhD researcher with Science Gallery Dublin and the School of Education. Her research explores how art, science and society shape one another. She’s particularly interested in where knowledge is made and who is not in the room when it happens. Her work explores how this process might be changed in spaces like Science Gallery Dublin where new ideas are prototyped and available for commentary and critique. Autumn has a background in immunology and oncology research at UNC Chapel Hill. She also holds a Master’s degree in Science Communication and Public Engagement from the University of Edinburgh and most recently worked as the Social Media Manager for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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