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Open Invitation

If you have participated in the project and would like to contribute to the blog, please contact Gregory Sale.


Richard Toon, Director, Museum Studies Program

On Tuesday, 15th March, a special event was held in the ASU Art Museum where Gregory Sale is staging his show, “It’s not just black and white.” It was a panel discussion, part of the international conference “Resilience, Innovation and Sustainability: Navigating the Complexities of Global Change.” The aim of the conference was to “to advance understanding of the relationships among resilience, vulnerability, innovation and sustainability…. by bringing together scientists to share their work on the dynamics of interconnected social-ecological systems.”

The title for the Art Museum event was “Art’s Role in Resilience Science and other Innovations in Thinking.” Panelists included me, Richard Toon, Director of ASU’s Museum Studies Program; Gordon Knox, Director of ASU’s Art Museum; Adriene Jenik (by Skype), Director of the School of Art; and Sander Van Der Leeuw, one of the conference organizers, Dean of the School of Sustainability, and Director of the School for Human Evolution and Social Change. Gregory was our skillful moderator. One comment from the audience was that we shouldn’t use titles in introducing people. She had a point, but I thought readers might like to know (quickly) why these particular people were chosen to lead a discussion.

Gregory Sale, Artist-in-Residence

So, our topic was artists and scientist’s collaboration and Gregory’s topic is Arizona’s criminal justice system and contemporary practices of punishment and discipline. You might think they have little in common? But I think Gregory’s approach is similarly transdisiplinary, seeking to engage thinking where scientists, artists, those in humanities scholarship, and the interested public collaborate on experiments aimed at expanding our awareness of important social issues and help build new understandings. The whole idea of the panel was to specifically argue against the notion that art (and the humanities more generally) and science are two, discrete cultures. Rather, the methods of art making—involving speculation, imaginative projection, and experimentation that allows meanings to emerge—directly advance the practices of science. They help formulate research questions, suggest methodologies, explain findings, and integrate science with the aims of social engagement.  And Gregory’s experiment is all about social engagement.

Mathew Moore, Artist/Farmer

At least 50 people were there, but not as an audience to a panel of speakers, rather as a group of people, from all over the world, gathered around the table to discuss how artists and scientists can and do work together on topics of vital importance to health and well-being of our planet. Among those that spoke were conference attendees from Mongolia, South African, Sweden, and Chile. But local voices were included too, for example Mathew Moore, a local artist who’s work documents the transformation of his family’s farmland outside of Phoenix into suburban housing, using art, in the form of earthworks, video, and installation (http://www.urbanplough.com).

Scientist from Mongolia

The conversation was wide-ranging and difficult to summarize in a few words. It included discussion of artist/scientist collaborations, for example, on the sounds trees make, to which someone from Siberia asked, “What about consulting the shamans? They have been listening to tress for centuries.” It included the special contribution artists can make to conceptualizing alternative futures, something scientists have had difficulty doing.  It included discussion of whether our traditional understanding of the “two cultures” is still valid, given our post-modernist understandings of how knowledge is constructed.

Asks ” What about consulting the shamans? ”

There was also discussion of our planetary environmental crisis, which means that these issues belong to us all. The problems we ask science to tackle these days transcend not only individual scientific disciplines but also science itself. Take global warming as a particularly resonant example, touching as it does on how governments position themselves and all citizens think about their own and the planet’s future.  Scientists and nonscientists (policy makers, social activists, you) have to work in teams or it’s game over here as well as in other fields such as solving our energy future and ending endemic disease, war, and hunger.

Gordon Knox, Director, ASU Art Museum

It was important to hold this conversation in an art space, because art making is interested in escaping (even if it can’t) the bounds of what is already known and has been practiced. Art is looking at the nothing that is there, to borrow an image from Wallace Stevens or, hats off to Shakespeare, art is looking at “airy nothings” in the sense that imagination is real but isn’t a quantifiable thing. Yet we know it when we are in its presence.  Last week, as the conversation whirled around, I think we were in its presence.  Thank you, Gregory, for allowing it to whirl.

Richard Toon, Director of ASU’s Museum Studies Program

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