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Preparing for productive inter- and transdisciplinary research involving the arts

Reflections on the workshop “Inter- and Transdisciplinary Research. Working between science, technology, art and society”.

by Nina Horstmann and Emilia Nagy

Working within the university setting, in the field of transdisciplinarity and the sector of art-science collaborations, respectively, we, Nina Horstmann and Emilia Nagy, noticed certain similarities within our work. Our conversations started around those shared approaches, challenges and aims, and eventually gave birth to the idea of gathering our knowledge in a workshop concept to pass it on to interested prospective and practising researchers. To us it seemed extremely important to involve the arts (i.e. all artistic disciplines such as visual arts, music, literature, dance), in such a workshop on inter- and transdisciplinarity, but in the course of our discussions about possible content doubt started to seep in: Are we and the university environment ready for this? Having organised four two-day workshops since 2017 we can clearly say: Yes! Since then the workshop has even been included in the further education program of the Technische Universität Berlin at ZEWK, in cooperation with the Berlin University of the Arts, and we have also received inquiries from external academic institutions.

The aim of the workshop is to share our knowledge of collaboration at the intersection of science, technology, art and society with PhD students and post-docs in research and academic education, as well as with artists. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are terms used to an almost inflationary degree in research calls, project proposals and mission statements issued by academic institutions. At the same time the significance of and possible approaches to such cross-cutting projects still seems puzzling and vague to many. Knowledge of related methodological and scientific concepts is not yet sufficiently widespread. This was the impetus to contribute our expertise to the field of inter- and transdisciplinary literacy at both above mentioned universities.

We teamed up because our respective perspectives and knowledge complement each other very well. While Nina Horstmann focuses on collaborations at the interface between art, science and technology, Emilia Nagy researches the social impact of transdisciplinarity. Our discussions throughout the conceptual development and realisation of the workshops revealed how multifaceted the topic and our experiences are. Our intense exchange focused in particular on questions around the interaction between sustainability-oriented transdisciplinary research and art-science collaborations. Initially we presented these as complementary concepts, however as we continued to develop the workshop we ultimately presented the subjects as different aspects of the notion of integrative knowledge production.

The workshop pursues the following overarching goals:

  1. building awareness of the value of cross-border work for society and the arts;
  2. conveying the theoretical fundamentals of interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and art and science projects;
  3. providing insight into real-life practice and potential challenges;
  4. testing methods for collaboration across disciplines and institutional frameworks;
  5. experiencing cross-disciplinary exchange.

The workshop is oriented towards the reality of work across disciplinary and institutional boundaries within the framework of academic institutions and provides ideas on how to successfully embark on such ventures.

Crucial for us is to present the arts and all their sub-disciplines as equal to other academic disciplines. Participants should come to understand that the arts not only bring their own disciplinary knowledge to collaborations, but also offer pathways to collaborative knowledge production through such practices as self-reflection, innovation and communication (Schnugg 2019). The arts and the actors involved can reveal additional levels of recognition and experience, contribute to the development of specific methods, and add a unique manner of approaching the overall creative task (“Gestaltungsaufgabe”) of the recursive cognitive process that occurs by means of conceptualisation, realisation and experience (Krohn et al., 2017).

The workshops are structured along the following topics, alternating between impulses that we provide and collaborative work in small groups:

  1. clarification of the terms interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and art-science collaboration;
  2. identifying problems;
  3. research management;
  4. participation and knowledge integration;
  5. integrative research with the arts; and
  6. effectiveness, transferability and science communication.

In order to make these topics and our programme as engaging as possible and to facilitate exchange between participating groups, we attached great importance to including participants from a broad range of disciplines. This versatility is essential to be able to “simulate” challenges in the use of methods within the working groups. In the workshops conducted so far the following fields and professions have been addressed: landscape architecture and environmental planning; biotechnology, electronics and computer science; health care management; sociology; storytelling and screenplay; social and business communication; data science / machine learning; industrial engineer, sculptor, actor, artist and designer.

We see the most important developmental step in the course of our conception of the workshop in our attempt to integrate questions related to the inclusion of the arts in inter- and transdisciplinary research projects across all of the workshop’s thematic focuses. We illustrate the relevance of integrating artistic perspectives into knowledge production by presenting different examples of good practice in distinct contexts. We discuss these examples with the participants and reflect with them on ways to cooperate with the arts in their own projects. In our experience most people find it difficult to imagine working with the arts in a way that goes beyond creative methods and design and that involves the co-production of relevant scientific results. In order to make approaches to such cross-disciplinary collaborations easier to understand we usually test methods that enable cooperation between extremely diverse disciplines.

Again and again we utilise the method of “boundary objects“, i.e. an object that provides a common point of reference within a project because it is equally known to all, even if it is assigned different facets of meaning, values or norms (as we discuss below, we used as an example for our participants the concept “sea”). Initially we described a boundary object quite abstractly as an interface object that provides actors from different fields with orientation and a means to communicate without the need for (verbal) translation. However, over time we showcased how such objects can become a focal lens and intersection point of different knowledge communities including the arts. We have shown by means of examples how emerging artefacts, stories, performances and other experiential formats can be collected under the term “boundary objects” and used as a means and end to knowledge integration. Boundary objects occupy an intermediary space between imagination and reality and between the present and future. Since interdisciplinary work is not possible without boundary objects the method offers a tangible point of interaction with actors in the arts.

The practical exercise with boundary objects is only used when the workshop participants come from very diverse disciplines. In this exercise three homogeneous small groups of equal size are formed with participants from the natural sciences, humanities and arts. Each group is given the same “object” (i.e. “sea” – represented by a simple illustration of three blue serpentine lines) and instructed to assemble common associations with the object on a large sheet of paper. After about five minutes the group switches from their own sheet to that of another group, where they take up the previous associations and develop them further to describe concrete problems, for which solutions should be found. After 5 minutes the groups switch again. In the final round the groups formulate research questions about the thoughts and ideas outlined by the others. Finally, we discuss the results and experiences of the exercise. The different approaches of the individuals depending on their background quickly became clear. For example, one group focused primarily on issues around environmental sustainability and took a more scientific approach (plastic waste, overfishing, rising sea levels), while the group with a sociological background reflected on non-knowledge and making decisions based on uncertain knowledge. Quite different considerations were found in the “creative group”, where focus was placed on connoted narratives such as Flat Earth Theory, Atlantis and Moby Dick. However, the shared general understanding of the “sea” (as boundary object) formed the basis on which a discussion of complex issues through very different lenses was possible.

The task is not only an illustration of how a boundary object can work, but also shows how each homogeneous group brings a rather one-sided approach or way of thinking that only generates interest through the input of the others. In our experience participants responded with curiosity and openness to the new perspectives opened up by the exercise.

In the workshop the participants could experiment with this and other methods and come to understand their value for integrative research work between science, technology, art and society. After the workshop such cross-border work was viewed predominantly positively by the participants. Longer-term empirical data, obtained through a survey, show that interest in arts-science collaboration remains high. Ten percent of workshop participants from the previous four years responded to our questions and confirmed that their attitudes toward arts-science collaborations had changed as a result of the workshop. All survey participants indicated that they were either seeking such a collaboration or were already involved in one. Half of the respondents are currently using the methods tested in the workshop. However, we lack feedback from participants with a natural scientific orientation. In future workshops we aim to address their perspectives in greater depth.

There are many obstacles to art-science projects. In the final rounds of the workshops, it is frequently mentioned that in “real” project work it takes a lot of courage and freedom to depart from familiar research paths. The research routines of one’s institution as well as the requirements and guidelines of funding organisations prevent scientists from venturing far outside their disciplinary boundaries. We see the workshops as an important contribution to facilitating such ventures in the future and encourage actors from all backgrounds to take part.


Krohn, Wolfgang, Grunwald, Armin, Ukowitz, Martina (2017): Transdisziplinäre Forschung revisited Erkenntnisinteresse, Forschungsgegenstände. Wissensform und Methodologie. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society 26/4: 341–347

Schnugg, Claudia (2019): Creating Artscience Collaboration. Bringing Value to Organziations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

 Horstmann, Nina (forthcoming, 2021): Kunst und Wissenschaft In: Schmohl, Tobias / Philipp, Thorsten (Hg.) (forthcoming, 2021): Handbuch Transdisziplinäre Didaktik, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag

 Nagy, Emilia and Schäfer, Martina: Wirkung und gesellschaftliche Wirksamkeit In Schmohl, Tobias / Philipp, Thorsten (Hg.) (forthcoming, 2021): Handbuch Transdisziplinäre Didaktik, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.


Nina Horstmann and has a dual background in art history and environmental studies, both of which have been a big part of her career to this point.  She possesses a unique blend of expertise in art & science collaborations and strategic programme-leading across multiple disciplines with a keen interest in sustainability; skills she implements daily at the Hybrid Plattform – an initiative by the Technische Universität Berlin and the University of the Arts Berlin. Nina is passionate about leading change by building new networks, facilitating co-creation, mobilising people and stakeholders and shaping new and exciting transformative programmes and strategies.  

Emilia Nagy studied physics and later switched to the humanities, studying German literature, linguistics and art and media studies. With this mixed academic background, Emilia has been working in the context of transdisciplinary research for almost 10 years. She has coordinated transdisciplinary research projects, and since 2015 she has been conducting research on transdisciplinarity at the ZTG – Centre for Technology and Society at TU Berlin. She is fascinated by the possibilities and questioning of hurdles to co-creation and the integration of different forms of knowledge for transformative processes.

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